I WAS a very indecisive and ambitious child. Back in primary school, the pupils’ ambitions were recorded every year.
I remember one classmate whose report card consistently had “policeman” written in the “ambition” box. Mine, on the other hand, had something different every year. But I can tell you one thing: “doctor” was never on the list.
The idea of becoming a doctor formed like a shadow: elusive and vague in the beginning, and becoming more concrete and defined as it got exposed to the light of day.
The first inklings started when I joined the Red Crescent Society, and discovered that I enjoyed first aid very much. It also helped that being a first aider meant I could skip running the yearly marathon and chill in the cool cover of the first aid tent.
Then, in my final year of secondary school, my niece had a brain tumour. She had always been such a happy-go-lucky girl, who used to laugh merrily and annoy me by singing at the top of her lungs. When I saw her on her hospital bed, cracking her usual smile, but only half her facial muscles would move, it broke me. She died a few months later, just a few days after her 10th birthday. That was when I vowed I never want to feel that helpless ever again, and I thought becoming a doctor would help me achieve that.
Deciding to become a doctor suddenly in Form Five is not for everyone. Most students who had aimed to get into medical school much earlier on would have spent many school years polishing their portfolio for the competitive applications. They would have spent holidays doing volunteer activities in healthcare-related fields, or learnt a foreign language or musical instrument, for an edge over other applicants.
If medical school is what you want, preparation is key. I did not have that advantage, but I was lucky that I already had the grades, the co-curricular activities portfolio that would give me a chance to enter medical school despite entering the game late.
In retrospect, I now realise that there were a lot of other factors that subconsciously influenced me to choose medicine. The mindset that “smart kids should be doctors, engineers or lawyers” was ingrained in me, along with the idea that any other career would be unrealistic, poorly paid or a “waste of talent”.
I also had always wanted to study abroad, and the only way I could afford that was via a full scholarship, which narrowed down the options of courses I could go for. And perhaps a part of me was just going along with what people expected of me.
I had no idea what a medical degree would involve, or the work life of a doctor. All I had were the general preconceptions of the public about doctors. I never spoke to doctors to ask about their day-to-day life. I never shadowed a doctor in hospital.
My vision stretched till the medical degree, but not further beyond to the job as a doctor, which is an extremely unwise way to make a decision that could influence my entire life. But at 17, I was too young to understand all this, and it was with blinkered eyes that I set upon the path of medicine.
It is with the benefit of hindsight that I can now offer this advice to those who wish to go on the same path: don’t just prepare for medical school, prepare for a life in medicine.
At the end of the day, you are trying to become a doctor, not a medical student. Put in all effort to find out if the career is for you.
Talk to people who are working as doctors, preferably those who are just a few years into their career, because their experience will be the most relevant to you when you graduate. Write letters to hospital directors to ask for permission to do attachments or shadow doctors in the wards. Ask other like-minded friends to join you if you’re afraid of doing it alone. Take a frank look at yourself, arm yourself with the facts and reality of the job, and be honest about your motivations for choosing medicine.
If you still think this is something you want to do, now you will be jumping in with both eyes open, and only then will you be able to swim further, even if you have to fight against the current.
The writer is a doctor at Hospital Enche Besar Hajjah Khalsom, Kluang in Johor. The secondary school national champion of the inaugural Spell-it-Right competition in 2008, she is passionate about education and sharing her experiences of her journey in medicine.
Email her at email@example.com