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Self-Care in Medical School: A Lesson from the Heart

As a first-year medical student only a few weeks into gross anatomy, I still have a lot to learn. In fact, it seems as if every new thing I learn reveals 5 more things that I need to learn. I understand that this is a common feeling; after all, medical school is one of the most (if not the most) fast-paced degree programs in the world.
With all the information to learn and the incredibly fast pace, medical school is a perfect storm for making students feel overwhelmed, stressed, depressed, frustrated, and so forth. I have already seen this is my classmates and felt it in myself at times. Because of this, self-care is absolutely critical.
Take a lesson from the human heart:
The heart is the central organ in the human body and has one of the most critical jobs: it must take all the systemic blood, get it oxygenated (plenty of help from the lungs) and then send all of the freshly-oxygenated blood to the rest of the body. All the other organs and tissues depend solely on the heart; this includes critically important organs (especially the brain) down to the less-than-necessary parts.
The structure of the heart and its subsequent vascular branches actually shows which parts are deemed important. The earlier a branch occurs, the more important the area it supplies. If one looks at the aorta, then one will see the brachiocephalic trunk (right side) and the left carotid are the first branches, taking blood first to the brain.
But wait – those actually aren’t the first branches.
The very first branches off the aorta are the left and right coronary arteries, inconspicuously branching from the base of the aorta. These branches supply blood to the heart itself – because despite the massive amount of blood flowing through the heart, it can’t use any of it directly. Instead, the coronary arteries make sure the heart is adequately oxygenated, allowing it to function well.
What’s the moral of the story?
The heart is integral to survival and a lot of other organs depend on it. Maybe it even wants to help the other organs out – maybe a lot! But the heart cannot care for other organs unless it is well oxygenated itself. It must take care of itself in order to take care of others.
Medical students can’t wait to be doctors; the whole point of this educational journey is to learn how to take care of others. Medical students, in general, are excited to learn. This usually includes the classroom information (i.e., anatomy) but especially includes the clinical experiences, where we get to work with patients and other people. Additionally, this desire to help others is of course why most of us chose medicine; the desire to learn is the other major reason. Self-sacrifice is another major value; healthcare professionals often sacrifice free time, a smaller workload, etc. in order to care for people. However, no doctor can do this effectively without caring for him or herself. The doctors that provide the best care to the patients are also taking care of themselves. As a medical student, it is critical to begin the discipline of self-care now. Medical student burnout is a real thing, so make time to take care of yourself.
Here are 3 simple ways you can care for yourself:
1. Physical Health
You would think medical students would care most about this, but the fact is, many students neglect their own health for the sake of learning, completing assignments, and so forth. Taking care of yourself physically, however, has far-reaching implications: you will have more energy, you will feel better about yourself, you will be less likely to get sick (which will definitely interfere with studying!), and you will have more credibility as a physician-in-training (taking care of your own health establishes your ability to care for the health of others). How can you manage your own physical health? Two simple ways, for starters: diet and exercise. Eat healthy, and stay active. Make time to do these things now and they will become lifelong habits.
2. Don’t study all the time
Perhaps this sounds like blasphemy – how can a medical student say this? Simple: no one can literally study all the time. Sure, you could always have a book in front of you, claiming “studying,” when in reality you would lose focus, daydream, and ultimately not learn very well. Instead, practice studying efficiently. When you sit down to study, study: put away distractions, set specific goals, and do them in short bursts (30-50 min). Then – don’t study! Take your breaks. This will go a long way in reducing burnout and making you feel better about the time you actually spend studying. Additionally, make time for your social life (time with family and friends), spiritual life, and personal relaxation (doing what you enjoy). You can attempt to study all the time if you’d like, but it is not a healthy way to learn.
3. Rest
This goes right along with the other two suggestions: get plenty of rest. Set aside enough time to sleep at night – don’t set your bedtime based on when you know everything for the night. (Hint: you’ll never know everything.) Make sure you are sleeping well when you do sleep, too. Besides sleeping, rest your brain every now and then. Exercise is a great way to let go of mental strain, as is pleasure reading, watching television, etc. Find ways to rest so that you can be more efficient when you get back to studying
These are simple frameworks and suggestions; there are many other ways to care for yourself. Ultimately, self-care is about doing things that benefit you as a person. Yes, studying and learning is your main goal, and requirement, for these few years. However, you cannot learn effectively if you aren’t investing time in other aspects of your life. Make time for self-care.

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Brent Schnipke, MD is a writer based in Dayton, OH. He graduated medical school in 2018 and is psychiatry resident at Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. His professional interests include medical humanities, mental health, and medical education. Brent Schnipke, MD is a writer based in Dayton, OH. He graduated medical school in 2018 and is psychiatry resident at Wright State University Boonshof...