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Únicos, Unidos, y Orgullosos

At the beginning of February, I had the pleasure of attending the Latino Medical Student Association Midwest Regional Conference at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. At the conference, I attended different workshops on topics like food deserts/swamps, and trauma-informed care and how it applies to Latino communities. I networked with many Latino medical students from around the Midwest. I also heard a wonderful talk from Dr. Harold Fernandez on his experience as an undocumented immigrant in the United States. His talk was inspirational, and he left us with one piece of of advice (well, two if you count his shameless plug for plant-based diets): he encouraged us to create our own happiness and joy on our journeys to medicine. His message really resonated with me as it matched my own goals that I have been working on recently.

Medical school started off rocky for me. I dived in head first, putting in hours and hours of time to study hard, signing up for tons of extracurriculars, and often neglecting to take care of myself as a consequence. I quickly learned how unsustainable my habits were and how quickly they were leading to burnout. I knew I had to make a change but I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. I soon realized I was neglecting to tend to my own happiness. I was blowing off friends to study, I wasn’t doing fun things outside of school, and I hadn’t yet made an effort to build a community within the medical school.

One of the hardest things about medical school is finding balance. The demands of medical school eat up the majority of my free time so much so that taking a break from studying is often a guilt-inducing decision to make. And that’s what I’ve found myself struggling with since med school started. I can’t even imagine throwing in the demands that some of my classmates have: families, marriage, relationships, commuting, etc. Sometimes prioritizing my studies makes me feel selfish; I’m always letting somebody down. But I’m also often letting myself down, sacrificing my own sense of happiness. It feels hypocritical to sacrifice my own well-being when I will be making a career out of taking care of the health and well-being of others.

But medicine IS a career of sacrifice. It’s a long road to becoming a physician and there are a lot of compromises to be made on this journey. But having seen family members make sacrifices for this career and even watching my classmates on their own early journeys, I have re-committed myself to one principle: I won’t sacrifice my own well-being for anything. Becoming a physician is part of my purpose in life, and I’m working on making the journey towards that goal as meaningful and enjoyable as possible. YES, there will be sacrifices to be made, but there are little things I can do now to ease the path for myself.

Spending the weekend in Chicago with my classmates and getting the opportunity to meet other Latino medical students, I found myself so grateful for the opportunities and the wonderful people in my life because of medical school. Coming back to Ann Arbor after the conference to immediately study and take my GI final exam was rough, and I asked myself “do you regret going to Chicago this weekend?” I missed out on CRUCIAL study time! No, I don’t regret it because it was such a fun experience! I understand GI physiology and pathology to the best of my abilities, and I don’t regret losing the time to really know the ins and outs of copper metabolism. I also don’t regret going to trivia the other week with my friends because I had a great time (I’m usually so bad at trivia but I knew the answers to THREE questions!! I carried our team honestly). I don’t regret participating in Biorhythms (the medical school dance performance) because it was some of the most fun I’ve had since starting medical school. I don’t regret taking the time to go off campus or study outside of Taubman every once in a while.

I also don’t regret my involvement in extracurriculars, including signing up to be the social chair for the Latino medical student association because it means I get to bring that very excitement and energy to my classmates and work on building a community. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to organize mixers and potlucks, and watch my classmates enjoy themselves while building the friendships that I wanted to get out of medical school. I feel so proud to be a part of the Latino community in my class and attending the Midwest regional conference only solidified this for me. It made me feel recommitted to my identity and my purpose.

Now I tell myself if I’ve gone the day without a genuine smile or laugh, it probably wasn’t a very good day (which is OK, not every day in medical school is going to be amazing or ~fun~). But I’m working on creating the spaces, the community and the experiences to bring this kind of excitement and happiness into my life. I’m learning how to balance fun and work and how to prioritize myself in order to really give my all to my work and to my community. I am excited to see what other experiences the rest of my medical school journey will bring me 🙂

Elena is an M1 student and birth doula, interested in women's health. In her free time she loves reading, writing, and exploring new places.