by Aimee Capinpuyan
It’s 5 AM and I am jolted awake by the blaring of someone else’s alarm in my ears. For a few blissful seconds, I’m disoriented, and I don’t know who I am.
Piles of paper are strewn around my bed, looking like the debris of a paper people massacre. An uncapped highlighter is bleeding a bright orange spot into my sheets. To my right, my roommate is already awake, her face hidden behind a heavily annotated handout. Suddenly, it hits me: The exam is in three hours. I suppress the urge to cry as I seize my photocopied Vander’s Renal Physiology off the floor and frantically flip open to a random page. But the mechanics of sodium absorption are lost on me, drowned out by one screaming thought inside my head: Why on Earth did I decide to go to med school?
In a couple of med school application essays, I might have said that the decision was made for me when I was a little kid, about nine or ten, and I visited a public hospital with my family to check on Manang Grace, our house help.
The ward was hot, humid, and severely packed with sick patients. It was so full that there would be two to three patients to one single bed. Manang Grace was lucky to have gotten a bed at all, even if she had to share it with a complete stranger. Her bed was only big enough for each occupant to have one leg resting on the mattress while the other dangled down the side. I don’t know how they managed to sleep. How anyone could have recovered in such a setup is a wonder to me, but Manang Grace did recover in time.
Sometimes I tell people that it was then that I knew I wanted to become a doctor. As if all of a sudden, a light bulb switched on inside my head, or a tiny spark ignited the tinder inside my heart, consuming my metaphorical cardiac firewood in a dazzling, inextinguishable fire (*cue inspirational theme song*). Because really, wouldn’t that make a great story? The truth, I’m afraid, is a lot less magnificent.
The truth is that I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was a little chubby kid. It’s just that back then, my desire to be a medical practitioner roughly equaled my dreams of becoming a whole assortment of other cool jobs: zookeeper, astronaut, cashier, hammock-tester, Pokémon Master.
But slowly I began to discover, as many other children do, that I really enjoyed being helpful. Being the eldest of two siblings (five years older than my sister and eight years older than brother) meant that aside from having the privilege of terrorizing these two minions, I also had the responsibility of babysitting them when my parents were away, feeling their foreheads whenever they were feverish, and telling them bedtime stories late at night. In short, even though I didn’t realize it back then, I was already beginning to practice something at the heart of all good doctors: genuine care and compassion.
By the time high school rolled around and brought with it an onslaught of entrance exams and career talks, I had to seriously think about what I wanted in life. Taking a pre-med was definitely one of my choices, but so was a bunch of other things, like Political Science, Computer Science, Journalism, and even Filmography. My parents played a big part in my indecision, since they were so supportive of anything I wanted to do. There was nobody in my life to tell me, “No, you can’t go to Manila!” or “Don’t take Filmography!” Seriously, they are the coolest parents ever.
Eventually, the tiebreaker came in the form of a little bookmark given to me during my senior retreat by my cousin. The bookmark bore a quote from Romans 12:7: If your gift is serving others, serve them well. I took it as a sign and applied to pre-med courses in UP Diliman, Ateneo de Manila, and University of Santo Tomas.
Very unexpectedly, I got accepted into all three schools, and with a full scholarship from the Bank of the Philippine Islands to boot. The scholarship was really the key that opened the opportunity for me to study in Manila, since I could not have otherwise afforded the tuition and the living expense. With a hopeful heart, I took the scholarship, moved from Cagayan de Oro to Katipunan, and took up BS Health Sciences in the Ateneo de Manila. As they say, the rest is history. In 2014, I was accepted into the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health with a full scholarship.
On my first day in med school, I was so damn excited about all the things I would learn. I sat right up in the very front row, so close to the projector screen that I would always be craning my head up to see the slides, and uncomfortably close to the lecturers that I would always be facing their abdomens
. But pretty soon, my excitement faded into misery as we were battered with weekly exams. We would cram information the whole week, be tested on our ability to recall that information on Monday, and then forget all that we had learned as we studied for the next wave of tests.
The worst part for me came when we had to memorize the names of enzymes and their co-enzymes, names that were random arrangements of letters and numbers that seemed to exist for no purpose other than to give med students hell. It was excruciating. Every day I thought I was going to fail.
But for me, the most frustrating parts in med school aren’t the exams. It’s when I’m faced with another human being who is suffering, and I don’t know what to say or do to make that person feel better.
One time after class, as I was riding a jeepney, the kundoktor of the jeep held up a bag of peanuts and asked me, “Ate*, should I avoid this if I have arthritis?”
These are the moments we first-year medical students dread: being asked a diagnosis / prescription when we’re only beginning to learn the language of medicine. The jeep was nearing my destination and I had only a couple more seconds to elicit or supply information.
In a matter of seconds, how do I explain to him the mechanisms of arthritis, or that diet doesn’t affect some kinds of arthritis? How do I convince him to go get himself checked by a real doctor, tell him he can go to his health center and get a consultation for free, assure him that there are government services in place that can pay for his treatment (if it comes to that)? More importantly, how do I make him feel better?
The jeepney stopped and I told him the only advice I could think of: to just let his hand rest, and take painkillers for when the pain is unbearable. “Thank you ha, Ate!” he smiled as I got off. I don’t know whether it was the correct piece of advice, or whether it made a difference in his life. But it is encounters like these and people like him that keep me working hard so that someday, I WILL know.
It’s 5 PM and I lumber home, dragging my feet in the wake of this morning’s exam. It was difficult. It’s always difficult. That’s what makes it so easy to lose track of why I study in the first place. But on this particular day, I take a moment to pause and recollect. Why did I decide to go to med school?
And it seems that now, I have come up with a better and more sincere reply.
I go to med school because I want to do it for my country. For people who have no access to healthcare. For people like the jeepney conductor who had nobody else to ask about his condition but a passenger in a white uniform. For people like Manang Grace who have to sleep in sweaty wards on half-occupied beds.
I do it for my family. For my parents, who work endlessly to send me and my siblings to school. For my siblings, who study hard to be able to help my parents in the future. For my relatives who will one day fall into illness.
I do it for myself. For vanity, for the pride of being called Doktora. But also for the honor of being of service. For the endless opportunities to learn and grow and make a difference in other people’s lives.
It’s 1 AM. Piles of papers are strewn around my bed, my highlighter bleeding another orange spot into my sleep. I close my eyes, resting myself for the next battle. It’s difficult, always difficult. But I find many more reasons to remain.
*Ate – A Tagalog term in the Philippines. Traditionally, it is used to show respect towards an older sister.
Aimee is a twenty-something blogger from Cagayan de Oro City currently pursuing a medical degree and a master of business administration from the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health. She enjoys fiction, typography, succulents, and dessert.
Follow her at beainmanila.blogspot.com