Regalia

Nancy L. Hagood
Charleston, South Carolina, United States

 

Rainbow over Haiti. Photo by Thomas Johnston.

My medical school graduation regalia has hung in my closet for two years. It will never be worn.

In spring 2019, I was a fourth-year medical student, planning to graduate in May and move 500 miles north to work as an intern at my first-choice residency program. After years of hard work, I thought I deserved the success and celebrations that were sure to come at the end of the semester. My perfect plan was derailed, however, by a physical injury while on a medical mission trip in Haiti. I fully recovered, but the cost was a semester-long leave of absence and twelve months of physical therapy and medical treatments. I “unmatched” from my original residency program and in May 2019 I folded my graduation cap and gown neatly in my closet and watched as my best friends and classmates paraded across the stage, received their diplomas, and set out on the next phase of medical training.

Thus began my fifth year of medical school. As my health improved, I finished my few remaining graduation requirements and then enrolled in additional rotations. I took on several research projects. I reapplied to the match. I had worked hard during the first four years of medical school, but now there was an even stronger fire inside of me. After being so close to graduating in 2019 and failing to achieve the goal, I was tired of being on the sidelines. I craved the practice of medicine more than ever.

In March 2020, I matched. Again. At a different first-choice program. I was thrilled, but deep down, my joy was cautious. I had celebrated a successful match day the year before, but I had never received a diploma. I longed for the finality of graduation.

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolved, our match day celebrations were canceled and so too was graduation. I had dreamed of the moment when I, like my classmates the year before, would walk across the stage, be hooded by a beloved mentor, receive my diploma, and celebrate surrounded by family and friends.

That day will never come.

When I received the inevitable email notifying me that graduation had been canceled, I grieved but soon my thoughts turned: what if receiving a diploma, a degree, or a title is not the most important thing? What if the most important things are the people I love and the things I have learned?

What if my heart and my character are just as important as my medical knowledge? The past five years of medical school have stretched and challenged me in ways I could have never imagined. I have learned a lot of science, and I have been tested and assessed constantly. But more importantly, I have learned how to be human.

Medical school taught me self-denial. I live in the tension between a culture that values individual happiness and personal fulfillment, and a professional calling that requires sacrifice.

There is no way to sugar coat self-denial. It is hard. Walking with others through the most painful and intimate moments of their lives requires investment and personal sacrifice of time and compassion. But it is a gift to walk among the broken and the hurting and to have the opportunity to ease another’s suffering. Rather than success and celebrations, I only deserve what every human deserves: to be treated with respect and compassion.

Medical school taught me that there is strength in weakness and power in humility. There is strength in saying, “I don’t know.” There is power in asking for and accepting help. Life is precious and fragile. Illness always arrives unexpected. Even now in the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, our collective anxiety of—Will I get sick? Will someone I love get sick? What will happen if I, or they, do?—is a reflection of our collective belief in the sacredness of life and relationships. Sometimes the things that are most important are the very things I take for granted, until my circumstances leave me in a position of weakness or loss of control.

Sometimes I need help from others to get back on track. Sometimes I need to fail in order to fuel my future. It is in weakness and humility that I learn to see things from a different perspective and find new strength and power.

Medical school taught me how to grieve—or more accurately, how not to grieve. A few months ago, on a Saturday evening in November, I pronounced my grandfather dead. He died peacefully in his home surrounded by his wife, children, and grandchildren. I had cared for him, I had administered his morphine, and in the end my family looked to me for confirmation of his death. I was back on the wards at 6AM the next morning. I was afraid to ask for time off. I was afraid of being perceived as weak or lazy. When Christmas vacation finally arrived six weeks later, the rest of my family was moving forward in their grief, but I was still carrying the raw emotions as if my grandfather had died yesterday. Time had healed nothing, because I had not allowed myself to grieve, and the burden of unprocessed emotions was wearing on me. Once I acknowledged the reality of my grief, I was able to recognize the privilege I had been given to care for my grandfather and to serve my family. While loss may always bring pain, gratitude softens the ache.

Medical school taught me resilience. My dad has battled blood cancer for ten years. He developed multiple myeloma when I was a freshman in college and then acute lymphoblastic leukemia during my third year of medical school. He has endured surgery and cervical spine fusion, years of chemotherapy, and two stem cell transplants. He does not complain. My sister and I learned at a young age never to claim “Life’s not fair” in front of my dad. He would dismiss our claims with a laugh and say, “Fair is where you get your cotton candy.” He is my hero and the reason I changed the trajectory of my life and chose to pursue medicine. I have watched my dad, and many of my patients, adapt to the unexpected and recover from adversity time and again, and I have sought to emulate their resilient spirit. After my own health challenges, my dad wrote a letter to me on match day this spring that said: “To the Comeback Kid.” Those words mean more to me than a party or celebration ever will.

Medical school has also taught me never to stop learning. There will not always be lectures, exams, and final grades, but there will always be a need for the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Without compassion, competency is meaningless. Without competency, compassion has no direction.

Some of these lessons may seem contradictory, but the intricacy lies in incorporating and balancing each of them. This is a lifelong challenge for me and has only just begun. I still long to celebrate the milestone of graduation with my family and friends, and rightfully so. Life is a gift and worth celebrating, and my family and friends are the reason I first pursued and now completed medical school. I still believe the day of celebration will come, even if it is not the way I first had dreamed.

To the class of 2020 and my fellow graduates whose regalia hangs limply in their closet, may we grieve—for ourselves, our nation, and our world—but may we grieve with hope that what we have gained is far greater than what we have lost.

 


 

NANCY L. HAGOOD is a graduating medical student at the Medical University of South Carolina. She earned a B.A. in Economics and Theology at Georgetown University. She has a passion for global health and long-term, sustainable community development in Haiti. She will complete residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina.

 

Spring 2020   |  Sections  |  Education