Grieving Shattered Dreams
Years after leaving my ambitions for a career in Surgery, I’m still finding my path.
It’s been five years since I made the decision to leave Surgery as a career.
It had always been my dream: every day I had walked up the stairs to my biology class in college I had looked to my right, staring at the poster of a female surgeon plastered on the wall as I climbed each step. “You can be me too,” it told me as I clutched my folders, but I almost faltered at the first hurdle. I was only offered an interview for Medicine in the last week of interviews, my other applications having already been rejected. But the interviewers had liked my passion for surgery and medical innovation and I got a place.
I was the keen-surgical-bean from day one. If there was a surgical slant to a project, I’d take it. I took on research projects and took part in surgical education research as a participant when I saw it would take me a step ahead of my classmates. I always topped the leaderboard for the surgical simulations — I was praised for my quick uptake of skills and dextrous handiwork. At a careers event, I forced the hosts to make a leaderboard for a giant game of Operation — with prizes of course — and then proceeded to ensure I was at the top of that leaderboard for the entire night.
I was awarded the Royal College of Surgeon’s prize for my intercalated degree, as well as their prize for my medical elective to the Plastic Surgery department in Kuching, Borneo. The British Association for Plastics, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery also sponsored my trip. I picked my residency for its surgical slant and its rare opportunity for Plastics experience.
And then I started work, and things started to unravel.
I guess that I wasn’t really prepared for starting work, in the practical sense. I was book smart and had passed the exams well, but I was wholly unprepared for the tasks that I would actually face as a junior doctor. Combined with my natural predisposition towards anxiety plus my location far away from home and my university friends, the first months were terrifying with no palpable support in place. Shortly into my first rotation and on my first set of night shifts, I was confronted head-on with death and the experience still shakes me (and wrote about it here). Work wasn’t as I expected.
Then, rotating onto my dream Plastics job, I watched as the more senior trainees struggled with work-life balance, their difficulties in finding partners due to work commitments, and the boss’s absence from their homes and families. Doubts began to creep in about whether I was willing to sacrifice home for work, and what my life might look like if I kept going.
Over the next year and a half, I realised that — in the UK at least — I couldn’t have it all. But, perhaps in Australia I could? So off I went, to the other side of the world.
Unfortunately, the work-life balance was probably worse! I watched as my colleagues competed with each other to get onto the training programme, breeding a toxic environment. I watched as they did a 1-in-3 (and often 1-in-2) 24h on-call, often being called into the hospital multiple times a night. I knew I wouldn’t be able to physically cope with those shifts (later confirmed on reading Yumiko Kadota’s book “Emotional Female”). And, again, I saw the surgical bosses struggle with keeping their home life together. Add in some bullying (and Islamophobia), and I was no longer sure the end goal was worth it.
I’d made my decision. It was time to get out. The goal to be a surgeon, however, had been my dream for at least half my life. When you let go of your dream, what is there to replace it? When it has been your identity, who do you become when you let go of that? I held on for months, unable to cut the cord. I felt embarrassed to turn my back, feeling that it cast me as a failure. I imagined being laughed at — or worse, pitied — by my classmates from medical school. But in the end, I knew that I had to find a new way forward.
I read once about how everyone has a ‘blueprint’ for their lives within their heads. It's the story we tell ourselves about how our lives will pan out: our hopes and our dreams. Perhaps it's the goals you have with a romantic partner, or, like me, professional and life goals. When this ‘blueprint’ disappears, we feel lost. The map we have built for our lives no longer exists, and we lose our sense of direction (and inner peace) until we build a new ‘blueprint’ for our life. This process is painful, as you have to decide on a new path to take. It’s a period of grief, combined with uncertainty.
For me, I felt stuck in a job and a career that no longer suited me, but I didn’t know which alternative to take. For all of college and all of medical school, I had wanted to be a surgeon. Out of all the rotations as a junior doctor, it was the surgical rotations that I enjoyed the most. But I knew that it was for me: the end-goal was not the lifestyle I wanted, therefore why take the path? However, whilst I wasn’t keen on the alternatives, I also didn’t know my worth outside of medicine, nor have the courage to start again from scratch.
In the end, I chose General Practice (Family Medicine) as it allowed me the greatest freedom. Five years after ripping up my ‘blueprint’, I’m still creating my new one — I haven’t yet settled on a path. Maybe that's the key: potential paths remain open, and new paths are created all the time. I’m finding new interests and new avenues to explore. By becoming blinkered towards a goal I had reduced the experiences I was exposed to — and now they’ve opened up I’m finding more things that I enjoy (and am good at). I still sometimes find myself thinking about what could have been if I had stuck it out, but I always decide that I would have been unhappy.
So, if you — like me — have torn up a ‘blueprint’ or had it taken out from under your feet, don’t despair. Give yourself time to grieve, and allow yourself to move forward: new pastures await.