Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The medicine in our stars

Nishitha Bujala
Hyderabad, Telangana, India


Look up to the stars during medical school
Photo by Khamkéo Vilaysing on Unsplash

I have been fascinated by the night sky for as long as I can remember. I would see the tiny, indiscernible stars and wonder if there was a bigger meaning to the world than what I had perceived. As I grew up, I began to realize it was not the stars that were tiny, it was us. Imagine being on a star thousands of light years away and looking at the Earth from that distance—it would look like a tiny speck of dust, so insignificant and frivolous that it would be impossible to believe that centuries of humans have evolved (from apes nonetheless!) on this chunk of rock. World wars were fought, countries bombed, colonies destroyed; all of it to establish power on this small piece of particle floating through space. It still surprises me that that close to 7.8 billion people live on it, wake up every day, go through their morning routine, work 9-5 jobs without ever thinking about all this even once. The complicated lives we lead and the problems we have and all our life experiences would be of no significance to the universe as a whole. But in my short time on this planet, I have also been awed by the magnificent things the human race creates. The flower dome in Singapore, the Great Wall of China, and the Pyramids of Egypt to name a few. It has always made me wonder how the human brain works. How do we get these ideas? What is it in the brain that even forms an idea? How do we think?

I will tell you a small story: A young girl sits across the room, wringing her hands uncomfortably, as the psychiatrist continues to stare at her intensely. The girl looks nervous and scared, so the doctor gives her some time to adjust to the room setting. It is obvious to the doctor that the girl’s parents had forced her to be there. “I promise I’ll help you in whatever way I can. You can talk to me,” the psychiatrist says, her voice as soothing as possible. As soon as she utters those words, she knows she has won because the girl’s defenses crumble. For the next hour the doctor listens intently to the girl as she narrates a bizarre but not unheard-of situation in the field of psychiatry.

“I am a first-year medical student,” the girl starts, “and I have germaphobia. An excessive fear of germs.” She pauses to look at the doctor and continues, “I know, it’s a paradox. A medical student being afraid of germs. What a waste, right? I cannot get myself to touch the cadaver during dissection nor am I comfortable eating in the cafeteria. I’d rather starve myself than eat there. Unless it’s food from home, prepared by my mother, I can’t eat it. I don’t go to football games with friends because if I do, I’d have to sit on the seats and I’m scared the germs will latch on to my dress. I don’t touch anybody, can’t use the public restroom, and constantly use sanitizer, so now my friends think I am arrogant and rude. I know it’s not normal and it has been causing me significant distress over the past few months. My parents sent me here because they think I need treatment for this life crippling disease.” The psychiatrist nods in understanding and tells the girl not to worry, that her obsessive-compulsive condition is treatable with behavioral therapy, and to come back for another session. The girl never goes back.

Let me tell you something—that girl in the story is me.

I entered medical school with the intention of understanding the brain and exploring the unknown. The anatomy dissection hall stank of formalin and the cadaver that was assigned to our table was headless (they had to take the head off to teach the dental students during their dissection period). They did preserve the brain carefully, but it was almost eight months later that we got to dissecting it. Sadly, cutting open a brain and learning the names of all the parts did not acknowledge my deep philosophical questions nor did it provide any answers for my germaphobia. My journey with germaphobia continued for almost three years before disappearing as abruptly as it had started. Sadly, I never did go back to the psychiatrist and receive the professional help I needed and it changed me, both intellectually and subjectively. I used to spend most of my days holed up in my room researching on my condition. In my pursuit of finding a miracle cure, I stumbled across an article which reported famous personalities and their phobias. Imagine my surprise when I found out Nikola Tesla, a true inspiration and an icon to millennials, also had germaphobia! He avoided touching people, and anything else that contained germs, at all costs and was known to wash his hands extremely frequently.1

I finally found acceptance for myself, for my condition, for my way of living, and that was crucial in my path to heal myself. When I first entered medicine, I was a completely different person. I can hardly remember her now—that enthusiastic, thoughtful, naïve eighteen-year-old girl who dreamt of the stars and galaxies and the “bigger things in life.” But I do not regret it. I will do it all over again if I have to—only because medicine taught me to be resilient, strong, kind, and to never ever give up.

Trust me when I say medical school is tough. The experiences I had and the things I saw during my training affected me—the first death of my patient, the suffering, the constant criticism from bitter professors who cannot make an effort to be nice, the toxic seniors, and the ungrateful people I encountered. Sometimes I break down and wonder if putting myself through the years of hard work, not caring about the toll it took on my spirit, and setting off my battered germophobic soul to grasp at the threads of my sanity was worth it all. And then I realize I have never really appreciated the good things about medicine. I savor the constant information that feeds my curiosity, the ability to think rationally when the only thing standing between the patient and death is me, the lives I save, the satisfaction that I have done everything I could for a stranger hoping somebody else does the same for my family one day—I can go on; the list is endless.

Occasionally when I feel like giving up, I think to myself—I survived medical school; I can survive anywhere in the world. I just need to find the one reason to keep me going. Find the one purpose, one motive, one cause, and move on. And if there comes a point when I cannot find any—I will think about the stars. How big and perfect the world outside this chaos is. Believe me, it will all finally click.



1. Reagan, Nick. 10 well known people and their phobias. 3 Nov 2010. https://listverse.com/2010/11/03/10-well-known-people-and-their-phobias/. (Accessed 22 June 2021).



SAI NISHITHA BUJALA is a final year undergraduate student from India currently pursuing her degree in medicine. She is passionate about writing and published her debut novel Breaking Philosophy, a sci-fi thriller, in 2019. She also enjoys performing standup comedy at open mics, paints in her free time, is learning to play the keyboard, studied classical music and dance for three years, and was a part of her high school astronomy club. She loves involving herself in just about anything and everything, which is why her friends call her the Jack of all trades (and probably master of none?).


Spring 2021  |   Sections  |  Education

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