By Megan Furnari, MD
I used to be a dancer, choreographer, creative entrepreneur, a true renaissance woman who dabbled in many things.
Now I wake up, sometimes with confusion in my head or body around what time of day or night it is. The overnight shifts and 24-hour calls have taken their toll on my Circadian rhythms and the wrinkles around my eyes. Energy lingers in my body often: hunger from a missed meal, dehydration, a hard patient outcome that didn’t leave my system, telling another boyfriend it isn’t going to work. I get up and greet the day. I’m a doctor now.
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In my previous life, I was most successful in the humanities. Creative new ventures were my bread and butter – writing and directing neighborhood plays, founding a singing group, choreographing and performing an interpretive dance about the science and art of human connection. I was fascinated by systems, intricate patterns in the natural world and how to explore their beauty. I spent hours reading prose of transcendental poets, dove into a focused study of plant anatomy and photosynthesis, pushed my physical body to run a marathon after years of competitive gymnastics. The heart and architecture of life lit a fire in my being and I couldn’t deny the epinephrine surge inside myself around learning, innovating, and creating.
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The medical journey was not natural to my form and didn’t match my strengths in the conventional sense. My enchantment with the creative would have led most to a different career, but my heart led me to medical school. After watching my own brother’s life unfold and end over twenty years inside a famous Boston hospital, my own heart ached to be what his medical team was to our family. Yet my nature was oriented toward a healer’s approach to illness focused on sacred space, ritual, and story. I was a relic of the past, and the language of modern medicine was foreign. Over the years of medical school and residency, a difficult energy descended and my spirit became confused, lost, and purposeless. At such times, when uncertain if your happiness and worth are valued in the process of becoming a doctor, help is hard to ask for. I failed more than once and could have left, but stayed. I am stubborn and driven and saw worth in bringing nourishment, intention and humanity to modern medicine.
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Where did I fit then and where do I fit now? I chose pediatrics for kindness and encouragement. Fear of failing constantly, harsh treatment, hazing, surgery work hours, and years of sleepless nights didn’t appeal to me in that moment. I watched my girlfriends from every part of my life pursue residencies in OBGYN. I felt under-qualified and too burned out to follow that path despite knowing it was my dream. And so I’m a pediatrician with a passion for OBGYN working as a neonatal hospitalist, a hybrid between the two worlds.
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Throughout this process of pushing and pulling, changing form, morphing identities, I found my way again. I started a women’s leadership program for female medical students to have skills and community to navigate this healthcare system in ways I’d never seen or had available. We tell stories, share the beautiful and painful moments, and give voice to the previously unspoken challenges facing women in medicine. I know now my own medical school experience was not unique, that other women share similar stories. This reflection you are reading is the product of an inspired female medical student in the program who approached me about creating a book of female physician narratives. I was impressed with her vision and professional approach. Her eyes bright, her voice passionate and presence humble. She told me her dreams of weaving together stories of women in medicine from different levels of training, a collective sharing. Then she asked if I would write something. Honored and unsure what to share from my own struggle, I agreed because she believed in me, and maybe my voice would empower another.
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Being brave is what I’ve learned. My fellow warrior women are medical students, eager and determined to explore vulnerability, courage, and the power of healing. Together, we are learning to embrace who we truly are without the fear of failing. It’s been hard for me to believe I deserve the best in my life, relationships, and career after years of denial. Now, I heal and share my process in order to help myself and others rise up after years of self-critique and feeling inadequate. I am enough.
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I end with the story of my own mentor. She arrived in the form of an internist, creating innovative change around writing and narrative in medical school, just in time. Her love of story caught my attention, her creative energy infectious and her smile bright. I was immediately in love with her reflective work that created a space for true authentic sharing, paving the way for my own spirit to manifest more fully. We spent more time together and I watched her be in her life, the first doctor I’d seen who was actually happy. I had all but given up on finding kindred spirits and female mentors, yet here she was before I’d lost all hope. Now, together we ride the ocean of healthcare on a large ship with powerful, strong women students. Intermittently, someone is tossed into the waves and we throw out the life preserver. We are a formidable team, always there when the wind changes or rations run low. This is the work I want to do for the rest of my life.
Re-empowering a woman who has lost her sense of worth on the way to becoming a doctor can change a life, or many, as it goes in doctoring. Writing my own story has returned some of that momentum, power, vital force lost along the way. The creative innovator inside of me is back after a long hibernation and will not sleep again.
***I thank Allison Munn and her courage to create the space for this reflection. I know she has and will continue to change the lives of many more women physicians through her own clinical and creative work.