Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Greater than the sum of her parts: The journey of a medical student

Japjee Parmar
Amritsar, Punjab, India


“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.”1


Photo by JillWellington on Pixabay

I often think about Sylvia Plath. I think of her in color, in black and white, at times a blinding yellow—but most of all I think of her in gray. The gray that engulfed her life, the cloud of disdain and doubt that consumed her, even as she was celebrated for the wondrous stories she wrote. I think of her in literary devices, in poetry, and in prose, but most of all in irony. The irony of having the potential to excel at many things, to select any of the plump figs that teased her, and yet starving. She could not choose the fig, the path, the potential, for it meant sacrificing all the rest. There is a certain poetry to promise, for there is a certain ache to it. Such is the nature of being creative. Even as onlookers yearn to appreciate the world through your eyes, you wish you had on glasses that selected the potential for you to work on while blinding you to all other possibilities.

Alas! Such glasses await invention and, in their absence, the creative mind continues to do what it does best: create. Create incessantly and compulsively, stopping seldom, to relish its creations. The creative mind, pondering over which metaphorical fig to choose, often forgets to eat.

As a medical student, I am all too familiar with this kind of rumination. The jubilance of my parents on my acceptance into medical school, the niceties of fellow colleagues, and the applause of having “made it” evokes a poignant nostalgia. Poignant, for although I did revel in said applause and basked in its promise, I realize that in letting it be a shiny extension of my being, my being soon became but an extension of it. Poignant, for it seemed I had finally chosen the metaphorical plum and sacrificed all others, only to find it bittersweet.

As much as I cherished the medical student in me, I could not help but feel inadequate and incomplete. I felt that in sustaining a part of myself, the part I chose…I had lost some others, seemingly forever. Until I rediscovered them in stories. Stories of patients, students, physicians, and the people behind those designations. A nimble deer in headlights wishing for glasses to save her from the glare, looking for glasses to make the decision of realizing her potential for her, suddenly was a deer no more. She was a chameleon, an amalgamation of experiences and stories, living a different truth, a different reality each day. Someone who dreaded starving the other parts of her in lieu of feeding the chosen one had found a way to sustain all of her.

My profession is unpredictable and no two days match each other, but I know how to take each day head on, for I have a part of me that fits it. I often borrow from my potential: the potential of a doctor, a writer, a daughter, a friend, a mentor, a teacher, or simply an inquisitive child. I find a time and day for all of it. In this journey of rediscovering and finding a place for all of me, I found that it is the sheer grit of physicians and patients alike that keeps medicine alive. Medicine extends beyond simply sustaining; medicine is hope and perseverance prevailing. Medicine is the unrelenting optimism of the oncology ward, it is the first chuckle in a catatonic schizophrenic, it is the faint smile of a mother on hearing her infant’s first cry, it is the personification of the circle of life with birth and death co-existing. It is about progress but also regression. It is about resilience but also fragility. It is about bracing through but at times it is about giving up. Medicine is not one of those things, it is all of them and more. Medicine, as I have discovered, is greater than the sum of its parts, and in turn, so am I.

I often think about Sylvia Plath. I think of her in color, in black and white, at times a blinding yellow—but most of all I think of her in silver. In silver for the lining she made to the cloud that weighed over her, the turmoil which in wondrous words she transformed, the silver in the stories she wrote.



  1. Plath S. The Bell Jar. Harper & Row; 1971.



JAPJEE PARMAR is a recent MBBS graduate from Government Medical College in Amritsar, India. She is passionate about narrative medicine and especially stream-of-consciousness writing. She is intrigued by and has a keen clinical and research interest in the idiosyncrasies of the human mind and behavior.


Spring 2023  |  Sections  |  Literary Essays

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