A life less ordinary

How to make medical training an awe-filled adventure

The cure for desensitization is new experiences. Here’s how I ensured plenty of those during medical school and residency.

Editor’s note: Many of the experiences described below occurred prior to the COVID pandemic. Please currently plan all rotations/travel according to school/CDC guidelines. This is an opinion piece; the views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Adventure runs in our blood. You won’t learn that in medical school physiology, but it is true. The definition and spectrum of adventure is different for each of us, ranging from learning a new instrument, snowshoeing on a full moon night, to bungee jumping in New Zealand. No matter what our adventure palate is, we can’t deny the craving for awe over neutrality.

Medical training is a wonderful and awful thing. It is an opportunity to get pushed to your mental and physical limits and to get exposed to all of humanity before morning rounds. You learn how to depend on others for support and how to trust yourself. You learn the weight of responsibility and you see the devastation of disease. The exposure of experiences you get in medical training is unparalleled and enrapturing.

Kelsea Sandefur, DO, plays broomball for a break from residency training.

But throughout this time, you may get sucked in too far. You may put your violin on the side and soon forget it in your parents’ attic. You may let your paint set dry out and your hiking boots sit unloved. Medicine has high demands and a strong pull that can take you away from your prior life and erase your memory of life outside medicine.

I’m here to give some tips and tricks on keeping the adventure going during your years of medical training—and avoiding the cycle of the desensitized and habitual life.

Part 1: Medical school

1. Go to medical school in a different state. Being from New England, I chose to learn medicine in the Midwest. I was exposed to new values, religions and politics that gave me a new lens with which to see the world.

2. Summer off after first year? Take advantage! Don’t spend the whole time doing research or studying. Do something you won’t be able to do over the next three years. I planned a large multiweek road trip out West. This may be your last large break in a while.

3. Go on international medical missions if possible. It is easy to study 24/7 and only take your breaks when your bladder is about to explode. But I promise you, the information that sticks the most is the stuff you deal with in human form. Working with Power of a Nickel, I was able to assist in clinics in urban and rural Uganda, go on a safari and whitewater raft in the Nile.

4. Take the extra elective courses in medical school. Now is the time to learn medical Spanish, explore culinary medicine and expose yourself to disaster medicine. You might be surprised by the opportunities you find out there! The American College of Lifestyle Medicine offers a free culinary medicine curriculum which you could bring to your own school if your school doesn’t already have one.

5. Plan ahead and be creative with your rotations fourth year. While away rotations may be limited during the 2021-2022 academic year due to COVID-19, you may have the opportunity to do a few out-of-state. If so, embrace the untraditional. The Emergency Medicine Residents Association maintains a list of possible wilderness medicine electives here. With the University of New Mexico, I was able to learn about hot and cold weather emergencies in New Mexico and tropical and scuba medicine in Hawaii.

6. If possible, do a full international medicine rotation. Working with INMED, I was able to get my public health/international medicine diploma and spend a month on the island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras, working in the clinic and scuba diving after work.

Part 2: Residency

1. Do intern year/residency in another different state. This world is huge and most of us don’t explore our own country. Each state has its own values, geography, and climate. Residency is a phenomenal pre-set period of time that you can choose to live somewhere new.

2. Make use of your precious days off during intern year. Even the classic six-day, 80-hour work week allows space for adventures. During my intern year I was able to camp, canoe, kayak, split board, rock climb, hike, cross country ski and sleep in a snow cave. Besides the outdoor adventures, I learned the ukulele and joined a bachata dance team. Time is something you make; it is not something you find. You will always have an available excuse not to do something, it is up to you whether you let yourself use it. I promise you will go back to work on Monday feeling more energetic if you spent your day off outside and doing something that fills you with awe versus staying home and watching Netflix.

3. Don’t stop exploring nature. No matter where you are, there are parks to explore and water to find! I am now a third-year physical medicine and rehabilitation resident in Cleveland. Moving away from the mountains and the ocean to a flat city was initially a challenge for me. But every challenge is an opportunity to learn, and Cleveland has become a joy to explore. To take advantage of Lake Erie, I joined the windsurfing community and bought a sailboat. I also bike commute to work and now live off-grid in a tiny home in the woods. Remember that if you really love nature, you can find it everywhere. Nature heals and restores.

4. Get rid of your television. Live your own adventures rather than watch someone else’s.

5. Practice mindfulness. Even five minutes of meditation a day will give your mind a brief reset and magically free up space. Focusing on the present will help you enjoy your new experiences even more.

6. Practice saying no to the things that don’t bring you joy. Another case report you could write up that likely won’t add much to the clinical pool of knowledge? No thanks! Assisting data crunching for an attending to add your name to a paper? No thanks!

7. Practice saying yes to those random things that come up in life. Broomball? Yes! Bubble Soccer? Yes! Find that open mic night at the local bar and sing a song. Sign up for the local mushroom foraging class. Take a 10-minute walk to search for wildflowers.

Maintaining a sense of wonder

The cure for desensitization is new experiences. To maintain a sense of wonder is to flood oneself with moments of awe. Even if we aren’t presented overtly with new experiences, we can find them.

Like children, if we view things as if we are seeing them for the first time, we will be more likely have a rich and beautiful life. In the end, I reckon that the moments of awe-filled adventure will be the ones that we remember most.

Related reading:

How I made med school work without cell service or Wi-Fi

DO student lands competitive training opportunity at the Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic

One comment

  1. james adams

    Spoken (written) like the true Lifestyle Medicine advocate that you are. We need (lifestyle) role models in medicine – not only to be more effective with our patients, but also for our own health and happiness so that we can keep showing up for work with a smile. Go Kelsea, go!

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