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After the exams are over

It was little over two weeks past that I found myself in Sackville Park in the centre of Manchester next to the statue of Alan Turing after having put pen to paper for the final time for this, my third year at medical school. Having sent a baggy-eyed, sun-starved looking selfie to the small number of people who care, I sat down and stared ahead of me, watching the pigeons gabble away.  Suddenly, there was quiet, and suddenly I thought for the first time in what seemed forever with a clear head.  No longer was my vision swimming with pathways, pharmacological mechanisms of actions, and signs and symptoms.  No longer did I feel wracked with guilt about thinking about anything other than the exam.  No longer could I pretend to my mum that I was too busy to do the car tax.

It was a curious sensation — absent was an ecstatic wave of bliss that I always expect and always miss, and absent was the desire to punch the air and whoop for joy.  Instead, what I felt was relief.  I reclined on the bench, lower back aching from weeks-upon-weeks of crouching over a kitchen table, and I just smiled.  There was nothing else to be done, I thought. The oh-so-familiar pangs of a post-exam tension headache began to waft their way behind my eyes, and I ambled my weary way home.

And so, made utterly impotent by choice, mental exhaustion and not a little bit of Eeyore-like despondency, I suddenly found myself staring down a three-month-long expanse of unknown.  After a good eight months of pretty much constant focus over a textbook or in front of a computer screen, I must say one finds one’s desire to summon motivation alarmingly lacking.  I don’t think I’m alone in this sensation — my flatmate attested only this week from the living room sofa: I just don’t know what to do? We both stared at the wall, not saying a thing.  I don’t either, came my reply. With more time to sleep, I’m no more rested; with more time to do things I get less done, and with more places to go and see I ruminate and remain rather stationary, no matter how many people purse their lips and tell me they wish they had that much time off, too.

It’s times like these I am reminded of the quotation attributed to Benjamin Franklin — If you want something doing, ask a busy person. Perhaps it’s this sense of frantic productivity that lies behind many medical students’ stereotypically rabid levels of activity, and is so famously lacking whenever they don’t have exams to prepare for.  Perhaps, also, it’s this sense of despondency that translates to clinical practice and is behind the reportedly large number of practitioners who find themselves in depressive and or burnt-out states — I dread to think so.

Dim memories of my interview for admissions percolated through my mind that afternoon as I sat next to Turing and watched the birds peck away — You’ve been on call for twenty-four hours and you get home… What do you do?  Would you talk to people about your concerns? … And don’t say you’d go for a run, because no one does that at midnight.  I was then, as I am now, stumped.  I think I said something about going swimming or reading, or something else vapid.  I also think I second-guessed that he wanted me to spout platitudes about alcohol abuse, confidentiality, and professionalism, but the buzzer rang before I even got the chance.

I still don’t know what I’ll do after a long shift, but I hope I figure something out.

Matthew Betts
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