One Vote of Confidence

This weekend is Cornell’s Accepted Students Weekend, when we invite in all the students who earned our school’s stamp of approval and try to convince them to choose Cornell. We bribe them with lavish food, enthusiastic current students touting their extracurriculars (hi), and NYC excursions such comedy clubs and museums and bars. They also get to meet their fellow prospective students and decide if they are people they can befriend for the next four years. It’s a wonderful two-day ordeal.

Last year, I organized and performed in the Music and Medicine showcase, and I brought a group to the Met museum of art. This year I’m not participating as much, but I’ll go to some events and answer questions. I still remember the commonly asked questions from when I led many of WCMC’s interview-day tours, and I still remember all my canned answers. Let me tell you the story behind my generic and secretly evasive answer to one particular question: “why did you choose Cornell over all your other school choices?”

Hint: I didn’t choose.

Two years ago, at my own Accepted Students Weekend, I met Dr. M, who is single-handedly responsible for me being in the medical field at all. He told me this: “I worked my ass off to get you in here. Each year, each committee member gets one ‘choice’ to admit even if the others don’t want him, and this year you were my choice.” Yes, Dr. M got me into Cornell, but here’s the additional backstory. You see, Cornell was the only school that accepted me. In two years. Of 26 schools the previous year then 24 schools that year, I only earned one single vote of confidence. I was that close — one doctor on one committee at one school believing in me — to not being a doctor ever.

Well, shit. How’s that for a revelation?

When applying, I knew my lack of commitment to medicine made me a weak candidate. I was an applicant with absolutely no medical exposure, haphazard coursework, clear investment in other fields, and a half-assed personal statement about how teaching students made me realize I liked helping people or something. I’m also really bad at talking, which contributes to my high failure rate in interviews.

Even when Dr. M let me in, a crucial question lingered: was I not suitable for becoming a doctor? What about my personality and my interests made me bad for treating patients? That philosophical dilemma troubled me, especially between my two application cycles. Most people and schools — all of them at the time — didn’t want to turn me into a physician, and I started wondered it was because they couldn’t foresee me committing fully to the field.

Of course I’m forever indebted to Dr. M and his vote of confidence, but he followed his explanation with this: “But you don’t owe me anything for this.” Still, surely I must owe Cornell something. At minimum, my school deserves my dedication toward being a proper medical student. I should attend all the lectures, seize opportunities to do research and contribute to the community, and spend lots of time studying so I can score high and match well and do Cornell proud. In other words, commitment.

Well, shit. That didn’t happen.

I tried to carve out a place here at Cornell for myself, to earn the spot here that was lent to me out of charity. For me and my odd skillset, that meant contributing my music, photography, graphic design, and programming experience. I’ve become a token musician; not the strongest player but the most willing to play whenever and whatever the circumstance (and what circumstances they’ve been!). I’ve kept my camera ready, becoming the token student/photographer who’s free — both monetarily and in the sense that I’m already attending events. I also became a design editor for Ascensus and redesigned the Guide to NYC for the first years because it needed to be updated. Somehow I’ve morphed medical school into a continuation of my liberal arts education.

Now, nearly halfway through my time in medical school, I feel both proud and guilty. My motivations were selfish in nature, and my diversions have interfered with academics. Plainly said, music, photography, and design are just more fun than studying! Some weeks I spend 15+ hours practicing and rehearsing and <5 hours studying. I’ve ditched required classes to photograph snowstorms (though, to be fair, my lecture attendance was above average). Even now, while in the hospital, I don’t devote all of my attention to learning clinical and scientific knowledge; a section of my brain is reserved for recording unusual situations, notable details, and other random thoughts to write about later on this blog.

Hey look, that line of thinking made it onto the blog!

The premed/med school spiral can be an all-consuming rabbit hole, and I was so determined to keep from falling into it. I pursue my hobbies recklessly like it’s an act of rebellion. I started this year’s writing project (one post a week) as a conscious effort to keep my mind from falling fully into my clerkships, so writing is explicit resistance against commitment. Did Dr. M foresee this happening? Was he the one person who mistakenly let a delinquent “med student” down the path toward becoming a doctor?

All this I do because I firmly believe medicine can’t be practiced in isolation. Doctors of antiquity had to be socially suave, cultured, and aware of their surroundings as they navigated a discipline rife with moral quandaries, scientific doubt, and emotional burden. Medicine has crept steadily toward becoming more purely scientific, but its deep roots in humanism persist. Our patients are still individual people, not faceless medical conditions to be treated. We try to restore their health so they can continue living their lives rich with art and music or whatever they please. Modern doctors can’t be tunnel-visioned scientific machines who do nothing but study and research, even if our medical education system rewards precisely that. We shouldn’t forget that.

I hope there’s a place in future healthcare for a humanities-inclined doctor like me (an applicant with mediocre scores and no research). Who knows how, where, or in what specialty, but hopefully a solution will present itself. Maybe there’s room for a musician with tempo-constrained precision (surgery?) or a photographer with an eye for minute visual curiosities (radiology?). Meanwhile, while still in school developing my fledgling doctoring skillset, I’ll just continue to offer my school and my hospital what I do best: random unrelated shit.