I recently read Elizabeth Days ‘How to Fail’. Firstly, give it a read, it really blew me away. The writing is so candid and relatable. I genuinely had a cry, a laugh and couldn’t put it down.
Secondly, though, it got me thinking about how important it is in medicine to become accustomed to failure and to understand how to use it for self-improvement. So, I thought I would share some of my failures and how I have overcome them.
My journey to medicine was not hugely smooth. (A blog on my journey to medicine in to come.) Whilst in my second and third year of my undergraduate degree I began to struggle with my mental health. I had lived with a group of people that just weren’t very compatible with living together and I was in a long distance relationship whilst studying a degree I no longer loved. So when I took my first UKCAT I felt as though my whole life rested on this one exam. I had practised as much as I could considering I was in the middle of my final year dissertation and exams. I felt sure that working hard would get me through as it had always done before. I flunked it. Afterwards, I had a big dip. Getting the metro back from sunderland I felt sick. I had the worst migraine and was desperately trying not to break down in public. Once home, I closed my curtains and cried in bed for several hours. I was faced with another year of uncertainty and this was the first time I had really failed at something I had worked really hard for.
Moreover, suddenly all the work I was doing for my degree felt useless and I felt as though I wouldn’t be good enough to get into medicine.
However, after finishing my degree I moved to Oxford and started working as a theatre assistant. I worked in gynaecology and obstetric theatres and loved it. I was renewed with a sense of motivation and I learnt so much from my time there. The following year I did another average performance of the UKCAT and then on my third attempt, I got into Warwick. I suddenly had what I had worked for to three years and I felt nothing because a) I was in complete shock and b) I had depression – this is a story for another time.
Going to Warwick and studying medicine has been really challenging but it has really been worth the wait. Whilst working as a theatre assistant I did long weeks of nights, saw really difficult cases. I had weeks where I questioned if Medicine was really for me. I am so glad I had those and was able to conclude that I definitely wanted to be a doctor because I’m not sure I would have dealt well with those doubts whilst studying. I also learnt a really important lesson that sometimes I can work my hardest but I won’t succeed straight away.
Now I still fail all the time. I fail to exercise as much as I want, I fail to eat healthily all the time, I fail to work my hardest every day, I fail to be kind to myself. But I am totally ok with this. We can’t do everything all the time. However, I am honestly so proud of myself for keeping going for three years to get to where I am now and I wouldn’t change any of it. I now know I can tackle any challenge that comes my way, whether I fail or succeed in the end, I’ll be just fine.
In the medical community though I think there is a really long way to go. There is an immense pressure for doctors to maintain the image of perfection. Mistakes in medicine can obviously be devastating but unfortunately, they are inevitable. Doctors are human and often exhausted and overwhelmed. I am constantly struck however by the atmosphere of shame and secretiveness surrounding mistakes. People are quick to blame others and hide their mistakes, meaning … they keep happening! The only silver lining of medical mistakes is that we can learn from them. If health care professionals can’t learn to share their mistakes and welcome others’, then people will be hurt unnecessarily. Also the patients who have suffered or even lost their lives deserve to be respected enough that we use their experiences to prevent them in others. There is a fabulous TED talk by Brian Goldman about this very topic. (Link below). For those of you who are in healthcare, please join me in trying to make a difference to this area as we progress. And for all of you, please be kind to yourself when you make mistakes. Have your half an hour (or so) of crying but then remember, you’d be boring if you were perfect!