After graduating in Spring 2012, I spent a year working full-time in an Emergency Department while I applied to medical school. I began my current degree program (Doctor of Medicine) in Fall 2013.
When I was enrolled in classes at William & Mary, an English degree was complementary to, not necessary for, my intended career path in medicine. I majored in English because I love books, loved my professors, and loved our discussions; it was a respite from my science-heavy curriculum and honored an important part of me that couldn’t otherwise shine in classes like Genetics or Molecular Cell Biology. My work in the English department became a necessity for my own sanity.
I believe I am a more effective communicator presenting on the wards, talking to my patients, and writing my notes because of the skills I learned from the English department. Studying literature is an ongoing exercise in deriving and articulating meaning in stories, and so is medicine. Data are more than data, just as words are more than merely words. I recently read an autobiography called When Breath Becomes Air written by a young neurosurgeon and fellow English major named Paul Kalanithi, who died of lung cancer right after finishing his residency. I particularly like how he explained his decision to go to med school after studying English:
I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion. A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtues, had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form...Yet somehow, this process existed in brains and bodies, subject to their own physiologic imperatives, prone to breaking and failing. There must be a way, I thought, that the language of life as experienced - of passion, of hunger, of love - bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats.
In my view, one form of study informs the other and helps to create a well-rounded individual. Like Kalanithi, I am writing about what I see in the world of medicine to prevent myself from burning out. These interwoven skills have both enriched my performance at school and also provided a way to cope.