That’s a Wrap

benzene

Two and a half years ago, I quit my job as a book editor and became a post-baccalaureate, pre-medical student–the first step in the very long road to becoming a doctor. I had already started taking science classes at community college at night while I was working, but in the winter of 2011, I began my post-bacc at Columbia, my undergrad alma mater. That spring, I transferred to Georgetown, so that I could be closer to my boyfriend at the time, M. I packed up my stuff, moved from my hometown of NYC, and settled in D.C.. I embarked on an academic journey that was at times fascinating, and at other times frustrating, exhausting, and discouraging. I realized that the ways of thinking that had made me successful as a humanities student and an editor did not make me a fabulous science student, and I came crashing up against my own limitations. I floundered in my classes, and was often frightened that I’d made a big mistake.

At some point last year, on the cusp of failing organic chemistry II and unsure of whether or not I had the scientific mind necessary to practice medicine, I reconnected with some of the reasons I’d embarked on this journey in the first place. I salvaged myself on the orgo II final, passed the class, and returned to Georgetown for summer physics and genetics in the fall. In late March–just over a month ago now–I took the MCAT (which is why my recipes lately have been short of awesome–sorry, guys). Last week, I got my score back, and it was what I was hoping for. Which means that, not counting the application process, my three year post-bacc, pre-med journey is over.

It’s a little hard for me to talk about my post-bacc years without getting emotional; a few days ago, a friend and I were taking a walk through the west village, and I found myself getting choked up as I tried to articulate to him how I felt about this chapter of my life. To hear me tell it, being a post-bacc student is a trial by fire, and the truth is that it doesn’t have to be. A lot of people breeze through their post-bacc programs, getting stellar grades, excelling in lab work, relishing jobs as EMTs or scribes, and moving through the application process with great success. Others find it extremely hard (I can’t think of a Georgetown post-bacc who hasn’t hit rock bottom at some point or another), but still manage to do well. I’ve often blamed my post-bacc struggles on the fact that I came from a writing/humanities background, but a lot of my friends did, too, and they eased into the hard sciences seamlessly, without so much as a single complaint.

It didn’t work that way for me. Part of it is that I just didn’t understand how hard the process would be. I’d always loved school and being a student; I’d relished high school and college. I knew that it would be hard to study physics and orgo, but I assumed that, once a good student, always a good student: I’d brush off my flash cards, revive my good study habits, and reinvent myself as a pre-med. It didn’t work that way at all. Nothing I had once been good at made me any good at calculating the equivalence point of a titration, or pushing electrons, or studying electromagnetism. (Well, that’s not totally true–I think the analytical skills I developed as an editor helped me in biology. But that’s about it.) In essence, I had to relearn how to learn. There was no foundation upon which I could build; I had to create a foundation from scratch.

Part of it was that I was 28 when I started my post-bacc (I’ll be turning 31 in June). This is plenty young, but it had been a long time since I’d been a student. Unlike some of the younger post-baccs, I hadn’t taken AP bio five or six years ago. It had been eleven years since I’d taken a science class (unless you count “physics for poets” or “language and the brain” as an undergrad–and I don’t), and ten years since I’d taken a math class. I didn’t remember how to do calculus, logarithms, or trig. I didn’t remember what scientific notation was, and it had been ages since I’d looked at an exponential figure. As my post-bacc was starting, I realized, to my horror, that I’d actually forgotten a lot of basic math, too; I can’t tell you how many times I stumbled over dividing fractions. Oof.

When you go back to school as an adult, it’s easy to underestimate how out-of-practice you are in the fine art of being a student. One of the hardest things about my first year as a post-bacc was letting go of my fantasy that I’d be able to be a post-bacc and have some semblance of a normal life. As I was starting the process, I figured that I’d be able to balance school and my adult life, with all of its habits and rhythms, easily. I’d go to class and study all day, and have my evenings to myself to blog, hang out with my boyfriend, go to yoga, and cook the meals I love to prepare so much.

Big mistake. A few months of failing miserably to achieve student/life balance showed me that being a post-bacc means reorganizing your life completely. I had to get comfortable with night after night in the library, weekends on campus in study groups, less time for exercise and sometimes no time at all for cooking. I saw my friends less, had to block out weeks at a time where I couldn’t really make plans. I stopped seeing concerts and movies and going to New York on weekends. This might not have been as necessary had I not been struggling in my classes, but I was struggling. I sometimes had to work twice as hard as other post-baccs just to pull off a passing grade. Seeing the process through to the end meant recognizing that my personal life, such as I knew it, was going to change dramatically.

There were other reasons my post-bacc was hard. I quit publishing and moved to D.C. in a six month period. I underestimated how hard would be the shock of adjustment. I became homesick for my publishing friends and publishing culture (I still miss it, all the time; I never knew how much I’d cherished being a part of that world until I left it). I missed New York; I know that most people move many times over in their lives, and it’s a little ridiculous to complain about moving four and a half hours away from home, but I’d been in NYC my whole life, and all of my “people” were still there. My boyfriend and I broke up not long after I moved, and I found myself struggling to create a life in D.C. that didn’t center around the person who had made me want to be there in the first place.

The other day, someone asked me why I’d persisted with the post-bacc in spite of how absurdly ill suited I often seemed to it. At first, I think it was stubbornness and fear of failure more than anything. I’d embarked on this path with all sorts of idealism about what it would mean to become a doctor, and even though I was duly warned, I really didn’t understand what the cost would be. Medicine is a great dream, but it’s an expensive dream. The time, the debt, and the sacrifices one makes in one’s personal life are tremendous, and I couldn’t have known that until the process began. As reality began to settle in, I was both frightened of the future and also unwilling to admit I’d made a mistake. I was also scared to tell everyone in my life–including all of you–that I was quitting. I’d never abandoned anything before, and I didn’t want to abandon something that felt so important to me.

Obviously, this was the wrong reason to push ahead. But I’m so glad I did, because what happened along the way is that my persistence became animated by what I’ll call the “right” reasons. First, I started volunteering in pediatric oncology and hematology at Georgetown University Teaching Hospital. It was often very sobering, but I loved the children I worked with and actually loved the hospital environment. I found it exhilarating and inspiring, and was amazed by what nurses, doctors, physical therapists, and child life specialists do, day in and day out.

Next, I met and began working with Robynne Chutkan, M.D., an integrative GI doctor for whom I do research, and in whose Bethesda, M.D. office I’ll soon be doing nutrition work (which I am so, so excited to return to!). Robynne has been a role model and mentor to me in ways that I cannot do justice to in writing, and her approach to medicine–evidence based and progressive, yet focused on preventive care–inspires me every single day. Shadowing her has reminded me of the reasons I wanted to practice medicine to begin with: the opportunity to help people.

Finally, my experience as a student shifted this fall. At first it was subtle, but by the time I took the MCAT I could appreciate how profoundly things had changed. At some point during genetics (a hard class at Georgetown, but a fascinating one) I started to be able to apply some of the themes I’d learned in biology and chemistry to new situations. I realized that I was developing pattern recognition and intuition about some of the concepts that are central to pre-med education. I became far more comfortable with researching scientific literature, and I finally began to see how the microscopic realm of biology and chemistry and orgo pertain to the lived experience of being a doctor or patient. As rocky as my path into the sciences has been, I sought out pre-med because I needed–and sorely lacked–a scientific education. For all of my knowledge of nutrition and familiarity with holistic health, I didn’t really understand how the body works. I still don’t and never will completely–no one does–but I’m a little closer. And for the first time in three years, I can say with honesty that I am so, so excited to learn more.

There’s still a lot ahead of me. If I get accepted, med school will be a battleground, no doubt, and residency is famous for forcing young doctors to question what they’re doing, and why. But I’ve never been more sure that I want to keep going. I’m a lot more humble about this process than I was when I started, but my intentions are stronger and more genuine now that I’ve been forced to reexamine them again, and again, and again.

Of course, I should be clear about the fact that there’s a good chance I won’t get in next year. I’m applying this summer, and won’t know what the future holds until late next spring, so if you don’t hear from me about this for a while, it’s simply because I don’t yet know what my options are. I’m applying very broadly, to a variety of schools and programs, and I’m hoping that one of them thinks I’d be a good fit for their community. If I don’t–which is a very strong possibility–I’ll weigh my options and figure out the next steps. No matter what happens, I’m positive that I want a future in health care. And as shocked as I am to type this, I am being truthful when I say that, no matter what, I am so glad I did a post-bacc. I’ve learned so much, and grown so much.

At some point, I’ll put my feelings about the post-bacc as a whole into a more comprehensive post, but I don’t think I’ll be ready to do that until the application process is behind me. For now, I can only say that I absolutely could not have made it through without the love and support I got from so many people: my mom, who took every wailing phone call that followed an orgo test in stride. My friends, who listened to me moan and groan and doubt myself without getting sick of me (well, I’m sure they were all sick of me, but they didn’t say so). And especially my post-bacc friends. I didn’t go into the process expecting to find new family, but I did–I became a part of the determined little band of brothers that is the Georgetown post-bacc community. The friends I’ve made in the program are some of the most brave and inspiring people I’ll ever know. If any of them are reading, I hope they know how lucky I feel to have spent the last three years in their company.

Most of all, I could not have made it through the post-bacc experience without CR. On many occasions, I came to this blog discouraged and full of self-doubt. You guys cheered me on, encouraged me to stay the course without making me feel like you’d be disappointed if I didn’t, and reminded me that I was more than the sum of my orgo and biochem grades. I stopped writing about school this fall because I was tired of complaining about it, and needed for my blog to be a school-free zone. But I always took strength from this community. Thank you so much for believing in me, and for giving me a space in which I could remember who I really was, and what I really wanted. I’ll never be able to tell you how grateful I really am.

And now, it’s on to the next chapter of the pre-med journey. I’m still shoring up my plans for my gap year, but they’ll involve more work with Robynne, blogging, business, cooking, a little travel, more time in New York with friends, and an opportunity to feel like a well-rounded person…that is, before student life swoops in once again. I’m excited, and I can’t wait to share it all with you.

xo

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    187 Comments
  1. It’s 2015, but hopefully you’ll still be able to read this! This spoke to me on so many levels. I’m currently a postbac premed student at Columbia, and I just finished my first semester. I’m at a very low point in my life where I don’t really know if I should move forward–stratch that, if I can even move forward… I’ve always been a driven student, but even that doesn’t always guarantee success. I’m glad to hear how happy you were about continuing the journey despite all the hardships! Definitely gave me the thrust I needed to go on with it as it really is my dream. THANK YOU xxxxx

  2. Hi Gena,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I found it was real and raw and full of encouragement. I am starting the post-bacc program. I know it will be challenging but I do know it will be worth it. I’ll definitely be referring to this post throughout the process for support.

    Thanks!

  3. Congratulations!

    I just want to thank you so much for writing this post. Im only 21 at the moment and studying a humanities ba with this massive feeling that humanities isn’t actually for me and I would be better off doing science. However, like yourself, I don’t have the foundations of any scientific subjects. This post has given me so much optimism as to what I can still achieve if I put my mind to it! You have done so amazingly!

  4. Hey Gena –
    I’ve been following you for a while because your story was so much like mine. I went from working in publishing in SF to a post-bacc at UC Berkeley (it took me forever b/c I worked full time through it) and now, at 31, I am wrapping up my first year as an MSI. All those struggles in post-bacc will pay off. I nearly flunked physics in post-bacc. I had no idea what expectation to set for myself in my first year. But you know what? I’m keeping pace. Hanging out to the right of average. A few weeks ago I performed my first pelvic and prostate exams. I also performed a pediatric exam where I had to perform the entire exam on the child’s stuffed animal before I performed it on the child. Next year I will begin seeing patients in clinic. You’ll get in. Maybe next year, maybe not. I had to withdraw applications my first round and have another go at it the following year. But the point is, you’ll get in. And when you put on that white coat, you’ll know you are where you belong. And even though standardized tests never end in medicine and the first few years of academics will have you tearing your hair out (my stress level for my first test was near breaking point), you’ll be awesome at what you do. Your clinicians will see and respect your maturity and what may have gone unnoticed in post-bacc will be rewarded in the field. So continue to shine on in mind, body, and spirit. 😀
    Also, if you ever need a resource, don’t hesitate.

  5. Congrats on finishing up that last trying chapter in your life. 🙂 I’m so excited to hear all about the next chapter! Big hugs. 🙂

  6. Gena, I have been following your blog for a while, but I really felt I had to comment here, because this post is so salient for me at this time. I have a music degree and although I still intend to pursue the difficult career of performance, I finally realized after a lot of misery and whining and forcing my boyfriend to be a counsellor that I want to go to graduate school – but not for music. This will involve upgrading or another year or even, heaven forbid, another bachelor’s degree. My point is… I am glad I saw this post, because it reminds me that it can be done, it will make me a better person, and I might even enjoy it! So, thank you, and congratulations!

  7. Hi, Gina! I’m a university student studying sciences (just finished my first year) and also trying to go into medicine. As someone very in to health, nutrition, animal rights etc, I frequent your blog for inspiration and all. I really wish you all the best in your upcoming journey – I personally believe medical world needs more people looking at one’s health in a more holistic perspective than just with numbers & data. 🙂 Have a great summer and I hope to hear good news.

  8. you really amaze me Gena. I think so many of us who follow your story are rooting for you and hoping you get to contribute to the medical community. Many will benefit if you do! But if not, you already do so much good for so many.

  9. I feel moved to congratulate you. I have lived a very similar experience- I just finished the first semester of nursing school while parenting my 3 year old daughter alone. I don’t know why I imagined I’d have room for balance? Maybe it was just wishful thinking. I had to give up exercise, sewing, knitting, all non-essential cooking… basically everything I really enjoyed doing, everything that made single parenting a little easier. And now the semester is 1 exam away from being over. My grades weren’t straight As, but you know what? I did it. And so did you. Many congratulations and good luck on the next chapter of your life.

    • Congrats on finishing, Lauren, while parenting. I cannot imagine! I often said to my friends that I had no idea how anyone balances parenthood with being a pre-health student. And voila, you did it. Good for you.

  10. Gena,

    Congrats! I finished a professional degree last year at this time and I know how it feels to finish jumping through the hoops.

    Best of luck with the next stage, but you are really an inspiration to us all. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it is nice to hear about your school, etc. I enjoy knowing I am not alone struggling with academic life! Although, I am not a scientist.

    I always tell people about your blog b/c I read it religiously and make a ton of your recipes. I will continue reading your posts but also the discussions with the others in the CR world. It makes it a wonderful “virtual family” community to “discuss/read” about something that all of us hold so dear…our health and lifestyle choices.

    Again, best of luck and I am so happy that you can take a couple weeks off?? before you start again.

    Star

    • Thank you so much, Star! I have a whole YEAR off. I’m going to be working and very busy, but it won’t be like pre-med or the madness of what is to come. I can’t wait.

  11. Congrats and good luck with the application process. Thank you so much for putting so much time into this blog while in school. I don’t know how you did that!

  12. I have enjoyed following your story because I worked in the restaurant/food service business for many years before deciding that I wanted to become a veterinarian. I had a BA and a Master’s in hospitality administration but absolutely no science background whatsoever. In January 2006 at age 35 I signed up for my first Biology class at the University of Maryland. Over the next three years I worked fulltime and parttime (to fund my class-taking habit), took classes at two different institutions in order to get the correct classes in the correct order and tried to maintain some semblance of a normal adult life. Well, I am happy to report that it was all worth it: in two weeks, I graduate from the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine with my DVM. I’ve said it many times over the last seven years and it is true: it is never too late! Good luck as you continue in your medical school journey.

  13. Congratulations! As someone who has followed your post-bacc journey (but rarely commented!), it’s wonderful to see you find that “spark,” for science and medicine, despite how tough the journey has been.
    As a senior medical student on the brink of applying to residency, I can only say that while things don’t get any easier – I worked 2 months of 100-hour weeks while on my surgery rotation this year – it does become more and more rewarding as you move away from theory and towards clinical practice. The feeling that you get when a patient thanks you for making a difference in their lives makes it all worth it, at least for me. Hang in there – I have no doubt that you will be a fabulous physician.

  14. If I could run to the pointiest end of this plane right now and sell my kidney to the pilot in order for him to turn it around (the plane, not the kidney; speaking of, though, Ms Dr-To-Be, what would happen to my system if we turned my kidney around?) so that it landed in Washington, DC instead of OC, I would do it in a heartbeat because I feel the strongest urge to hug you into the squeeziest tight hug, my darling, my inspiring one, my brave soul, you fabulous creature you who has been inspiring me every step of my journey with your journey.

    (Journey, you say? Dooooon’t stop belieeeeeeeeving! Hold on to that feeeeeeeeling!)

    I can’t wait to see you soon. xo

  15. Congrats on being done with the MCAT. This is a hard question, and maybe one you’re unable to answer at this junction, but: do you think it’s worth it? I thought long and hard about medical school, and I believe I could breeze through the pre-med courses. I am gifted with both a scientific AND a literary mind. However, I worked in the medical field for more than five years in an administrative/clinical assistant capacity, and I learned a lot about what it is like to be a physician in hospital practice. I worked for an extremely renowned surgeon (who also writes, and whose work has garnered the attention and funds of the likes of Bill Gates), and I still became disillusioned. I truly believe that now, possibly more than ever, a medical career is a shimmering oasis. In other words, it is not what it seems to be. That is why I decided against medical school. We are undergoing a sea change in this country (hopefully) that will transform healthcare. Nevertheless, being a doctor is really not about healing, helping, or loving people: it’s about bureaucracy, wading through paperwork and insurance restrictions, paying homage to the mucky-mucks, seeing patients on time, publishing, and research. Add to that equation the fact that healthcare will soon go through the transformation from esoteric, expensively-educated profession to a paid gig and, well, how do you feel about that? In countries with universal healthcare, doctors enjoy no more prestige and salary than office workers – and face considerable obstacles far different from those our current health system faces. In fact, the obstacles our physicians face are luxuries in comparison to overcrowded systems, limited resources, and government involvement. I’d love to see a post from you addressing that. I am also curious as to why you chose to do research for a GI doctor who seems to be a master of marketing herself and her image – and not necessarily an evidence-based practice, or her years of experience. Doctoring is certainly an idealistic pursuit. But as with all idealistic pursuits, its realities are often far grimmer, and much more REAL than its pursuers wish to grasp.

    • Hi Rachel,

      Thank you for sharing your personal experience, and for asking me good, tough questions. It’s inevitable that I come across as naive, I think, and I often worry, when I write about my goals, that it’ll sound as though I’m idealizing medicine without considering the grim realities. You strike a chord because I think the hardest part of being pre-med is resisting the urge to put the industry on a pedestal.

      In some ways you’re right that I can’t really answer your question at this junction. I may get into medical school, and if I get in, I may become deeply disillusioned with the system itself. At which point I’m sure I’ll find a way to reflect on it here, as I always do…so, stay tuned? Right now, I still have enough fascination with the education itself (there’s still so much I want to learn, regardless of my un-sciency brain — I envy yours!), and enough hope that I can still do good as a doctor, to at least move ahead. As for the idea that doctors here will soon not be greeted with the same prestige and money, that’s not really a deterrent. I worry about the impact that debt will have on my life, so to that extent I worry about future salary, but this isn’t about trying to be wealthy. (If that had been my goal, I could never have worked in book publishing for 7 years!)

      I think you may be speaking in broad strokes when you say “being a doctor is really not about healing, helping, or loving people: it’s about bureaucracy, wading through paperwork and insurance restrictions, paying homage to the mucky-mucks, seeing patients on time, publishing, and research.” I know it can be as you describe–maybe it usually is–but does it have to be? I don’t know. I think I’ve encountered enough med students and doctors who describe genuine fulfillment with what they do, and conviction that they’re helping people, to believe that it can actually be about healing and caring. It may be a tremendous uphill battle to shape a practice that way, and it may take a long time in a medical life span to get there. But is it impossible?

      Anyway, I know there’s a lot of truth to what you’re saying, and maybe time will prove me the fool. But I guess my point is that I do still have enough idealism to find out for myself.

      As for Robynne, she is a savvy self-marketer, but I think her years of experience and her dedication to evidence based medicine are there between the lines on her site. If they’re not, they’re certainly evident in her practice itself, and in all of her dealings with patients. I chose to work with her because she listens, takes time with patients, is savvy about lifestyle and nutrition, is empathetic and invested in her patients’ lives, and gives them precisely the kind of care I never got when I was sick with GI conditions, and most doctors brushed me aside and told me to take Metamucil. I work with her because the research she’s doing might help a lot of people who feel hopeless about managing inflammatory bowel disease — and I think that matters.

      G

      • Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I am respectful of what you do – and what you are doing – and I thank you for your deeply felt and considered response. It will be lovely to witness your journey, for you are quite possibly the real deal. Much love for your graceful and thoughtful handling of my very difficult questions.

  16. Congrats on BEING DONE WITH THE MCAT!!! I remember feeling SO SO good when I was done! Now hurry up and start school so we can have more people that care about patients and think beyond medications in patient care!
    And…spend this year enjoying life! I spent my year applying, nannying and living by the beach with my husband and it was the perfect down time before gearing up to go to school, because once you begin the journey you kinda just hop on and don’t stop. I’ll be sending you some ‘good luck’ vibes for the long application process!

  17. congrats!! i’ve been considering a career in healthcare but i’ve always held back because i see that there is a lot of animal exploitation involved..how do you balance that or avoid that, and the idea that we need to help humans frequently at the expense of animal welfare? please let me know!

    • The toughest of tough questions, this one. My overall feeling has been that I can do more good by entering the system and advocating for awareness of plant-based diets within it than I can by opting out. I’d also say that nary an industry isn’t tainted somehow by animal cruelty, though your point is well taken that medicine is worse than most. I don’t suspect I’ll make a career of research, so I also think my exposure to animal testing is limited–but yes, the whole firmament rests on research that is often done on animals.

      So I just restated your question, I think. This is not an easy one, and I struggle with it myself. I sat out of dissections as a pre-med, but that’s just one small choice. I’m sorry not to answer your question; I guess I really don’t have a good answer.

      • thanks Gena! You do make sense, I think it is important that more of those passionate about plant-based living and animal welfare to join the community of medicine, because it is not only safer for people but also more convincing. I have been to many websites and blogs by people who advocate complete extremes of plant-based diets, like 100% raw or 100% oil and sugar free, and every day they add something new to tell you to start avoiding. They are not doctors and a lot of their firm claims are largely debatable. I love your blog because it is really based on the actual current research and knowledge. Best of luck for your future! 🙂

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