Monday, April 13, 2015

The Struggle Olympics: Why You Shouldn't Join In

In conclusion of winter quarter, I really wanted to write about a phenomenon that happened quite often over those absolutely dreadful 10 weeks.

As a second year student in the middle of winter quarter, walking into pre-clinical lab was often like walking into a sea of woes. You sit down at your lab bench, ready to embark on your own adventure of failure after repeated failure, when a classmate turns to you. With weary eyes, and slumping shoulders, they turn to you clutching a molar filled with endo files and begin an all too familiar sentence, claiming - "You will not believe how shitty this has been.."

And so begins their account of an epic saga of struggle. Your classmate explains how they had to take exactly one whole million radiographs in order to get their IAF - and finally their MAF - and now their master cone. And after all that was done, they found a surprise fourth canal, yippee! Their gutta percha extruded out the apex and fragmented off into the land of no return. They didn't realize they perf-ed but indeed, they did. And as this classmate continues to explain their sorrows, maybe you can't help but wait for them to finish their sentence, because "Oh boy if you think that's bad.. well let me tell you how my day has been.."

The struggle olympics is something that professional students everywhere face. Actually, let me rephrase - the struggle olympics is something that people of all kinds face - because very simply put, people need to know that their struggles are validated. No matter your profession, pain is pain. One day, I was driving home and listening to this really amazing, honest podcast on TED Radio Hour titled, "Keeping Secrets". A story that was hilighted was by speaker Ash Beckham, who shared about her coming out story as a gay woman. Her talk focused on how the "coming out" experience can be applied to anyone - a closet is just a hard experience.
"Although our closets vary tremendously, the experience of coming out of the closet is universal.. Inside the dark, you can't tell what color the walls are. You just know what it feels like to be in a closet. So really, my closet is no different than yours, or yours. Sure, I'll give you a hundred reasons why coming out of my closet was hard, but hard is not relative - hard is hard. There is no harder, there is just hard. We need to stop ranking our hard against everyone else's hard and just commiserate on the fact that we all experience hard. No matter what your walls are made of, a closet is no place for a person to live."
Though her main point is about the difficulty of having hard conversations, the point that I want to emphasize is that instead of spending our energy topping someone else's bad day with our own sob story, let's just stop participating in the struggle olympics. Something I realized in dental school is that no patient, no friend, no family member (unless they are a dentist themselves) can fully understand our struggle. According to an article from the Boston Globe, "Empathy Gap in Medical Students", the overwhelming amount of stress inhibits medical students' ability to remain empathetic toward their patients. Though "empathy is the cornerstone to the doctor-patient relationship", empathy scores when recorded at a student's first year until their fourth year - dropped significantly in a med student's 3rd year of school. Empathy is essential because patient outcomes are drastically improved when a patient can sense how much their doctors care.

As healthcare providers, we have to conserve that empathy for our patients.  Because when your patient sits in your chair, your focus needs to be your patient's needs, 100%. It doesn't matter that you've hard a really hard day and you're tired - you still need to give your best effort in providing excellent care to your patient. In a profession where prevention can so profoundly affect health outcomes, it is absolutely necessary that we express empathy for our patients.

This post isn't at all meant to tout complaining as some horrible thing; I believe complaining is a necessary way of relieving stress, and in all honesty, one of the strongest ways for classmates to connect through shared experiences. My point is that as we continue on as students, we can practice empathy - learn to absorb another's strife when it is presented to us, and respond with comfort and empathy - rather than turning the spotlight on ourselves.

As a friend pointed out, this is one of the many things that is much easier in theory than in practice. So maybe the next time someone tells you about their bad day, practice active listening. Before seeing your next patient, take a couple moments to breathe, and physically smile to yourself! Lately, I've been trying to practice a more selfless attitude, and not being caught up in your own drama helps you realize how small it truly is.


  1. thanks for this great post :)

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