Looking back maybe it wasn’t the smartest decision. Would I do it again if given the chance? Yes. Would I do anything differently? Not at all. I wouldn’t change a thing.
I had been studying for 10 days straight. I was about to finish my first semester of medical school and the only thing standing in my way was my anatomy final. I had spent all semester prepping for this moment. I had spent countless hours redrawing pathways from Netter’s. I had spent more late nights in the cadaver lab than I could remember. I had 5 pairs of scrubs that reeked of formaldehyde and I had sacrificed my sleep, my health, and my well-being to prove that I was worthy of being a medical student.
I had 24 hours left before I was a free man.
I was bordering an A and knew that if I could just get an A- on the final, I would keep my A for the semester. But what do you do when you are at your limit? You make bad decisions.
Prior to medical school, I was an athlete. I was a cyclist. Not just a “biker” but a cyclist that raced around the country. I had moved up the ranks, I was on a sponsored team, and I had spent 18-25hrs a week training on my bike. 27 weeks of the year I would travel to some random destination; from Arizona to Texas to Wisconsin, I would line up on the starting line with a hundred other sponsored and professional riders and drain myself of every ounce of energy just to win a few hundred dollars.
It was Sunday morning, my exam was Monday at 9am; I had 24hours before I had a 60minute practical exam and a 50-question written exam. I woke up, I was tired, I was drained, I was exhausted, and I didn’t know how I was going to spend the whole day studying. Naturally, I looked for an out.
I remembered hearing there was a big race in Scottsdale. It was what we call a criterium race, a short-circuit, tight-cornered, timed, fast-past bike race on closed roads. I did the math, I hadn’t raced in 4 months. I wasn’t training regularly, but I knew I still had my fitness, I knew I could get there, get ready, race, and be back home studying, all within 3 hours. It was the break I needed. No, it was the break I WANTED. So, I bit the bullet. I signed up, and next thing you know I was on the starting line. I was ready to release all of that pent-up frustration and angst from a semester of not taking care of myself.
I remember the first half of the race, I felt free. I felt alive. For the first time in months, I felt like I was in control. I had already collected several hundred dollars in prize money from intermediate sprints when I decided to make a move on the other racers, I jumped the “field” ( breaking away from the other riders), flew out ahead, went into a full sprint when … splat. Bike malfunction.
I went face first into the concrete. In retrospect, I should have eaten breakfast, concrete doesn’t taste as good as oatmeal. I was going 34 miles per hour when I hit the ground. As any athlete knows, I had ONE reaction, “is my bike ok”? I jumped up, grabbed my bike and checked my shoes noticing a pool of blood on the pavement. It was growing larger. A stream of blood pouring from my chin to the concrete. As volunteers rushed over, I was put in a chair, with no friends or family with me, I was put in an ambulance and raced to the hospital.
I had lacerations, contusions, abrasions down both arms, on both shoulders, on my back, a wound on my face that looked like the map of the Philippines, and a gaping hole in my chin exposing my mandible and my depressor, mentalis, and platysma muscles.
I laid in the hospital bed that day, trying to focus on all of the anatomy I had to study, when all I could do was question my decisions. That night at 9pm, I had a 3-hour plastic surgery from a microvascular plastic surgeon who re-approximated and reattached my muscles. I was put under general anesthesia, and thankfully they let me leave that night; my fellow classmates picked me up and took care of getting my car from the race, getting me home, getting my post-surgical medications and making sure I was ok enough to sleep.
Now this is the part of the story where everyone asks how I felt the next morning. To be honest, I can’t remember. I woke up at 8:30am still drugged and drowsy, I put on a tank top, with my arm in a sling, bandages and bloody gauze everywhere; I did what any medical student would do, I went to my anatomy final exam. My professor tried to stop me, my classmates couldn’t stop staring, but I refused to leave and luckily took the final. I didn’t get that A, but I passed. I managed an A- for the semester and I learned more lessons in 24 hours than I learned throughout the semester. That night I received a phone call from my Dean, battered and bruised physically, I was now on the “wild student” list; she was appalled I had taken the exam while under general anesthesia and that I should have stayed in the hospital that night. A valuable lesson: I should have paid attention in that anesthesia workshop from earlier in the semester. I had forgotten general anesthesia can stay in your system for 24 hours.
In retrospect, this was a life changing experience. No, I did not learn to stop riding my bike but I learned some valuable lessons that have served me over the past 4 years.
Lesson 1: Take care of yourself. As a medical student and PhD candidate – the volume of work can be overwhelming. But work and studies are not an excuse to neglect your health and well-being. By eating right, working out every day, meditating, and journeying, I no longer need to take time off or race to release my frustration and angst. I practice what I preach.
Lesson 2: Find what works for you. Prior to medical school, I was a competitive athlete but I was still the cyclist who always helped others. After my accident, I invested all of my time into helping my fellow students and giving back to those who helped me throughout my recovery. My accident was one of the reasons why I ran to become Student Body President. It taught me that when I needed someone, my fellow students helped me; it was time to return the favor.
Lesson 3: Use your time wisely. I remember sitting in the ER for hours that afternoon. Luckily, I had my anatomy notes on my iPad with me, I studied that afternoon like nothing happened. I struggled to focus and I doubt I retained anything, but I wasn’t about to waste time that could be well spent.
Lesson 4: Being a patient is humbling. Sure, we have all been patients, but that day I noticed every move, every sentence, every action that each nurse, resident, and physician took. As healthcare professionals, we often forget that each patient is more than just a “24yo white male CC: s/p bike crash in room 208”. Patients are human. They are watching your facial expressions, they are listening to you type on the computer in the corner, they are questioning why you look like you haven’t slept in 5 days.
Lesson 5: Don’t take things for granted. We wake up every single day with only one guarantee: today is all we have. I hear my colleagues complain about how hard things are or how they haven’t seen their friends in weeks. Medicine isn’t about what I need or what I want, Medicine is about helping those who need us. That accident taught me to live everyday like it is my last. Even with the long hours and hard days – I know that medicine is still a privilege that can be taken from me at any given moment.
And so even when you are struggling, even when you are working to improve your diet, study habits, exercise routine; it is important to remember that every accident, every bad experience is a learning experience. We can always grow and we can always learn fundamental lessons about life no matter how bad the circumstance or experience.
Thank you for taking the time to hear my story.