Boot Camp to Battle Ready: How The First Year Of Medical School Changed Me

I was working as an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Seattle when I first got accepted into medical school. As an EMT, the most common question I received -- often asked in a judgmental tone by someone “higher up” in the medical food chain -- was, "so what are you trying to do?" It was a subtle jab; a way of telling me that being an EMT wasn't a career. Thankfully that jab was accurate in my case.

My response was always the same. "I'm working on getting into medical school.” The person asking would usually nod and move on. That changed when I was accepted into PNWU.


"I will be starting medical school in the fall,” would often result in congratulations and acknowledgment of the achievement itself. Until the first time I was asked by a doctor in the ER.

 "Are you sure that is what you want to?" he asked.

I just paid $5,000 applying! Of course that is what I want to do! But all I could muster was, "Umm… yes?"

"Well it's a lot of work,” he said turning away. “Just make sure you're sure." With that he walked off, seemingly forgetting our encounter.

I was dumbfounded.

No congratulations? No "you're going to do great" pep-talk?  Nothing!? Instead I was left alone, feeling stupid; feeling irritated. I tried to brush it off.

Then it happened again. Different doctor, same story.

Why can't these people just be happy for me? I know it's going to be hard! I'm beyond terrified! But do they really need to make it worse!?

After a few months I noticed a trend. Most people responded how I had expected, but half of the doctors would respond by questioning my motivation and desire, asking if I knew what I was getting into. It made me feel like they thought I was stupid… like I didn't belong in medical school. That paranoia only added to my fear of arriving in Yakima and it being too much to handle.

Finally August arrived and we started school with a week of orientation. It felt like I was standing on the starting line of a race waiting for the gun to go off. Anticipation mounted throughout the week, peaking with our white coat ceremony. The short white coats made me feel like we were playing dress up, which just added to my humorous fear that I wasn’t doctor material. To combat it, I started giving myself the pep-talks that I’d once anticipated from others. “This is going to be hard for everyone,” I’d say. “You won't feel adequate. Don't compare yourself to others. It will be hard. You will do okay.”

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Then we had our first class.

The material was dense and I felt overwhelmed. I didn't know how I wanted to take notes and they went too fast for hand notes. I struggled with even the silly tasks, like finding our assignments online and knowing where to be and when. I would spend 45 minutes each morning just trying to figure out what was even going on that day and getting the information I needed to download prior to class. It still felt manageable, but time felt as if it had stopped.

The first week felt like a month and I realized I was counting the days until winter break. I had resource overload and tried to use everything and learn everything that was given to me. All the while I kept telling myself, “This is supposed to be this hard!” I fought to remain enthusiastic.

Our first round of exams came around and it was a slap in the face. It stung, but I told myself that it was supposed to sting. I pushed through the sting, determined to do better next time. I felt like an exhausted cheerleader that was still trying to rally after a sprained ankle… on slick turf… in the pouring rain.

By the end of September I found myself sitting at my desk, my eyes sunken in, a Red Bull in my hand. I was determined to stay up at least three more hours to study for the exam the next day. I had been going at it for days. Every moment I was studying. I hadn't watched Netflix or done anything fun other than take my dogs running since school started. I felt too guilty to spend time on myself when I felt like I was drowning.

I roused that soggy cheerleader inside of me, we said cheers to the medical school life, tapped our cans together, chugged the Red Bull… and immediately fell asleep on top of my MacBook.

Then came October, a month packed with exams and what I would define as my peak breaking point. I called my mom in tears and I told her there was no way I was going to make it through the semester. They were going to kick me out before it even ended.

“How am I going to pay all that debt off? What was I even going to do with my life? There is nothing else I can even see myself doing!”

I felt dead, numb, and stupid. I was beyond exhausted and I wanted nothing more than to just crawl into my bed and sleep for a week.

In the days following a particularly exam-laden week the air felt stale and quiet. The students all seemed different. They were less peppy. Grayer. A few still held onto the excitement, but it seemed more forced. There was less makeup on faces and people were looking thinner, or heavier, depending on how they responded to the stress. I opened my planner to find another "cute" note I had written myself during orientation week. I’d found a few in earlier weeks and my internal response to that peppy cheerleader was along the lines of "Oh darling, bless your heart."

This particular note read:

Good job, Dr. Chittenden,

I know it’s been hard but you’re doing great. Can you believe you have already been in school for over two months? See how time just flies by. Just keep it up. All of your hard work is paying off.

You?” I thought, “You know it's been hard?” Something flicked on inside of me and I felt pure rage at the positivity I had planted for myself to find. “YOU!? You think you know hard!?

You STUPID, SILLY GIRL! You had no idea what the hell you were doing! You had no idea how hard this would be! You naive little s***. Don't you tell me YOU KNOW what I'm feeling! Two months? I feel like I have been here years!!!  

I snapped at that poor girl who had such high hopes coming into this. I was still counting the days until break and constantly thought about how I wasn't sure I could last even a single year of this.

Looking back now I laugh at that moment; at how angry I was at my former self. I had experienced so many painful things as an EMT and seen so many things that could tear anyone's heart apart that I thought I’d be ready for all of this. In reality, the two experiences weren't comparable.

Something happened after that emotional breakdown. It was a real turning point. I understood why those doctors had responded the way they had.

When finals for the semester came around I was amazed looking back at the lectures from the beginning. They were shorter and easier than I recalled. They had so much less material than I remembered that I wondered what I’d spent all that time doing.


They had been easing us into it, but it had felt like the world at the time. I hadn't even realized the increase of pace until I had to go back and retrace my steps. There was another flicker of resonance and suddenly I felt more confident. I had learned and adapted. I was able to handle so much more than the old me could have even comprehended.

By the end of my first year I reflected on the roller coaster I'd ridden. I could see a change in myself. A year earlier I wouldn’t have recognized myself in that moment. I'd hardened more to the pain of failure and no longer took success for granted.

The hard work we put in is not always rewarded, so there is a different drive pushing me to keep going; a drive that comes from deeper within me.

Talking to the new "first years" as they prepared to come here, I found myself telling them the same things I hated to hear when I was in their position.

Enjoy and relax, because it will come soon enough, even though I knew for them it couldn’t come soon enough. I told them it would be hard in a way they couldn’t imagine; that until they experienced it they’d always imagine it the wrong way. I told them to make sure this was what they wanted. I didn’t say it to scare them, and I realize that that same advice wasn’t meant to scare me.

When those doctors asked if I was sure, they weren’t trying to make me feel stupid, or tell me that I didn’t belong. Instead, they were saying that if this is really what I wanted, I shouldn’t worry.

Even when I'm lying in the dirt, beaten down by another week of medical school, I wouldn't change a dang thing, and if asked, I would do it all over again. I love my life here.

This is where I am happy.

This is where I belong.

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A Chittenden

Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd year (OMS II)
Secretary, Psychiatry & Behavioral Medicine Club
Secretary, Emergency Medicine Club
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

A Chittenden