Trading My Lab Coat for a Hospital Gown

Last November, I was checked into a Cambridge ER after a suicide attempt. I sat in a hospital gown in an observation room and considered dreams that might be crushed by this interference with my schoolwork. The midterms I had bombed immediately after a friend’s suicide attempt earlier that term would be nothing compared to the risks of not completing the semester. Fragile though I was, I could not imagine a life without a career in medicine. Before I left the emergency room for an inpatient psychiatric facility, I told the nurses and doctors they had inspired me to continue my studies to become a doctor to help people in situations like mine. Their patience with my hysteria amid countless other even graver cases moved me to tears.

The IV sitting in the crook of my arm was nothing new to me. As a child, I went to the hospital for diseases ranging from pneumonia to anemia to anorexia. Many times, doctors had snapped at me when I couldn’t remember my medical history or when my veins yielded too little blood. These doctors were the ones who made me fear ever returning to the hospital, not because hospital visits indicated once again failing health, but because their dismissiveness made me feel unworthy of the care they would give me.

This phenomenon is not limited to doctors. I see this attitude growing, even encouraged, within much of the pre-med community at Harvard. The ER requires that doctors and nurses work together, yet every semester I see the same pattern: At the beginning of the term, students in large classes like Life Sciences 1a and Chemistry 17 form groups, all intent on helping each other study and check problem sets. But then, after the first exam, when grades are returned, the mutual support dwindles. Students get busier, they work harder, they shut themselves off. Those who excel stop helping those who fall behind. Office hours become packed. Nobody wants to fall victim to the curve, so struggling students fall farther and farther behind.

I watch so many of my friends celebrate birthdays and give gifts to friends, and then ignore those same friends the moment they struggle academically. When friends ask for help in a “weeder” class, they become a mere distraction, a stumbling block to be avoided on the search for a 4.0. The only person to even ask me about my prolonged absence was a peer study leader whose office hours I attended religiously, and whose help and emotional support I am forever grateful for. During my hospitalization, only a handful of friends noticed I was gone. None were pre-meds.

Then another friend of mine was rushed to the emergency room. I had finals coming up and told her that she would have to wait until my exams were over. I told myself something stupid about doing more good down the road as a doctor if I ignored her. Someday, 10 or 15 years in the future, I would stitch up the slashed wrists and give drugs to combat the overdose. Someday I would be able to comfort my friend after she collapsed under the pressure. But if being pre-med taught me anything, it was the limits of compassion. Every spare kindness is a risk, and while studying for Chemistry 17, I left my friend in the hospital alone. This is something I can never forgive myself for.

Harvard pre-med classes don’t pretend to be easy. You’ll skip parties, you’ll tell your friend you can’t catch up with him tonight even though he’s been begging you. They never tell you that you’ll have to ignore your friends as they spiral lower and lower. You have to stop bringing your sick friend the lecture handouts, because if they were taking the course seriously, they’d push themselves to go to class, right? And you’ll tell yourself that this is because you want a career that helps people. There are some who can power through, who will help their friends even when it takes time away from their own studies.

But this does not apply as widely as professors would hope. Much of this problem is worsened by the silence surrounding it. All the stress of making the curve applies to mental health as well as test scores. Nobody wants to admit they failed, and everyone acts exhausted but happy, because if you really cared about getting into med school you wouldn’t have breakdowns, you would have studied better, and if you show any weakness, being pre-med probably isn’t for you. And so I spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital and told no one.

If you finally break down after trying so hard like I did, it feels like failure. Anything that deviates from the “traditional” pre-med track is a failure. If you take physics through a different university, if you take organic chemistry after graduating, if the pressure of pre-med is too much and you stop that track, or if, God forbid, you leave the STEM field altogether, pre-meds look down on you. I looked down on myself when I realized I might not have the emotional strength to stay on the pre-med track, at least at this university.

So of course I didn’t tell any of my pre-med friends about my suicide attempt. Future doctors don’t do that.

EDITORS’ NOTE: We made the decision to publish this op-ed anonymously due to the private and intensely personal nature of its content. It is our hope that this piece will bring to light issues that affect members of our university.

Readers should also note that online commenting has been disabled for this piece in an effort to help protect the author’s identity.

—Ruben E. Reyes Jr. and Juan V. Esteller, Editorial Chairs

—Derek K. Choi, President

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