It's Not a Failure: Taking Personal Leave from Medical School

August 2, 2009 is a day that will be forever engrained in my mind. “We would like to offer you a seat into the class of 2017 if you’re interested,” was the most wonderful phrase I had ever heard in my entire life. I had made it. I got accepted into my top choice D.O. school, right in my home state! However, the changes that ensued hit me like a whirlwind. The call occurred on the first day of orientation. I had 24 hours to pack all my things, move three and a half hours away from home, find a place to live, and start class on Monday. Of course there was slight hesitation in my mind, wondering if I should take a year off because I wasn’t prepared to go that fall. I didn’t even think I would get accepted, and here my dream came true!
I packed all I had to my name, worked one last shift at my job, and drove down the following morning for orientation. I was running on no sleep and couldn’t eat; my stomach was in knots because I was so nervous and anxious and thrilled about being accepted. When I got there, I only knew one person. I found a seat next to my friend from undergrad, and we sat in the very back row of the class of two hundred and twenty students. I went to all of my required activities, but started to get really dizzy, nauseous, and weak. There was so much to do! I had to set up financial aid, find an apartment, get my laptop, keys, fill out mounds of paperwork, but I managed to get most of it accomplished. Overwhelmed doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling. However, I lucked out and found an apartment the same day I arrived, just one day after my acceptance call.
From day one, I felt behind. I had a hard time adjusting not only to the coursework and curriculum, but new surroundings, new people, and life in general. It was very difficult, but I managed to pass my first course and get it together.
In September, starting our second block of SKIN/Musculoskeletal, we had to learn the entire list of nerves, muscles, arteries, veins in both of the upper and lower limbs and the back in only four days. I lived and breathed anatomy those entire four days; it was anatomy from hell. After taking the cadaver-based exam on this material, 160/200 people failed, including me. Because of that, I failed the course. But the bad news didn’t end here. I got a phone call telling me that my best friend died in a car crash unexpectedly. She was my best friend in the entire world, and she died at the age of only 22. While I knew how short and precious life could be, I never had to deal with death up close before. Nonetheless, I picked myself up and kept moving along trying to bury my emotions because medical school waits for no one.
After that course ended, we moved on to the cardiovascular/respiratory block. I wasn’t doing very well in this course, struggling to stay caught up, with my best friend always in the back of my mind. Then my 62-year-old grandmother suddenly became very ill. Her hip transplant was recalled and leaked substantially high levels of metal into her blood. She got an infection and was hospitalized. This weighed heavily on my mind too, because she meant the world to me. After going through many hip surgeries, she developed an infection that even vancomycin could not conquer, and I was called home to say goodbye. I raced from my apartment to school, getting permission from the dean to be excused from yet another test I would have to make up (I had been in the same situation the month before when my best friend passed). I rushed to the hospital as fast as I could, but I was too late. The week after she passed away I failed another test, resulting in another course failure.
At my school, you can fail up to two classes and retake them in the summer. If you pass them, you continue on with your class. But if you fail more than two classes, you either repeat the entire year or they ask you to not come back. I had passed class one and failed two. I asked myself, “Do I continue, knowing my mind is elsewhere? Do I continue to just get by, barely pass? Knowing I haven’t changed my study habits, and could possibly be in a position where they would ask me to leave? OR do I take a semester off, clear my head, better prepare myself for next year, allow myself time to grieve, handle my personal and family issues and come back ready and prepared? Do I take care of myself, learn from my mistakes, realize what problems I faced, and overcome them?” So I did. I took personal leave. I did not fail out, nor did I quit. The dean granted my personal leave, gave me his sincerest sympathies, and told me my spot was saved for the class of 2018 when I am ready to return.
I believe taking personal leave—although difficult—was the wisest, most logical, and mature decision I’ve ever made in my life. I want pre-meds and medical students to know that this is an option. Medical school is not like undergrad. You can be granted personal leave for various reasons and medical leave if you’re constantly ill and falling behind. At first, my pride was in the way. I wondered what my classmates would say about me, think of me being in the first year classroom next year instead of with them, wondering how to break it to my family and friends, wondering if anyone would think I failed out or was a quitter. But I learned you have to halt all of these negative ideas. Personal leave is something that is not uncommon. I had no idea it even existed when I got to medical school until I met a classmate who took leave the year before and was now in my class.
If you are in a situation where you would benefit from taking personal leave, don’t be afraid and don’t care what others think. Do what is best for you and make the decision that will most benefit your wellbeing, happiness, career, and future in the long run. It will not ruin your life or career. In fact it can enhance both, depending on what you choose to do with your time off. Your dream is simply on hold until your mind, soul, and body are ready to complete it.
A few steps you need to consider when making this decision:
Sit down and take time to truly think about it. Write the pros and cons—as well as your thoughts and concerns—down on paper. Dwell on it for a few days.
If you decide it’s the right thing to do, start by going to an advisor on campus and getting their input. Explain the situation you’re in. Not only can they offer great advice, but they can direct you to the next step, which is usually scheduling an appointment with the dean.
When you speak to the dean, be honest about everything that has happened to you and why you feel this is a decision you need to make. If he or she grants your request, then you must decide whether to stay in your current apartment or going home. Another option one can consider is auditing, which I chose not to do. Auditing is continuing through class, going to all of the activities, but nothing counts. You don’t get to take tests, you don’t receive any credit, and you’re not graded for anything.  This can be a good middle ground to prepare to retake the classes the following year.
During my leave, I’ve experienced many things and have truly gotten to know myself. I’ve cleared my head, I’m back to working and I already have a house for next fall with two amazing roommates! I signed up for the STAT class which teaches you specifically how to study for medical school. I can assure you, some of the techniques that worked in undergrad will fail you with all the info you have to memorize in medical school. I’m also taking a course through Promedeus analyzing techniques, learning study habits, taking assessments, and preparing for school this fall. Everything is in order, all of my paperwork is completed, and I am on the ball ready to get back in class come July! I do have to repeat the entire year, including the course that I already passed. But this fall, I am prepared, I know what to expect, have a clear mind and heart, I know what I need to do, am much stronger, and determined to be the best physician I can possibly be. Taking personal leave was the best decision I had ever made for myself.
Medical school is not all sunshine and rainbows. However, I feel all of these adversities and difficulties will only make me a stronger physician. At the time, I didn’t think I could possibly bear or withstand the situation I was in, but God brought me through it all in one piece, teaching me lessons I needed to learn before I could move on in my career. I can now truly sympathize with a family over a death of a patient, because I’ve experienced it firsthand. I’ve experienced failure, something I have never ever experienced in my life. To all my fellow perfectionists: it’s OKAY to not be perfect! It’s OKAY to fail at times. It’s OKAY to not have a deadline on your dreams and to take life as it comes. It’s OKAY to step back and take care of yourself, because if you learn from your failures, then they weren’t really failures at all.