How a Broken Finger Nearly Derailed the 2011 U.S. Army Reserve National Scholar Athlete of the Year

#stressawarenessmonth #physicalactivitymonth

A broken finger is all it took to change my stress level. One broken finger and suddenly I was in a staring contest with depression. I had never been caught in a downward spiral quite like this one. Until this event, I had a pretty good grip on medical school. So, how did a single broken finger have such a drastic impact?

I’ve been an athlete all my life. From T-ball to collegiate rowing, a year hasn’t gone by when I wasn’t active in sports. During the seasons that I wasn’t competing, I was in the gym.

Constantly active. Constantly focused.

It is a lifestyle I’d grown accustomed to. You could even say I was dependent upon it.

As time went on, I began to see a correlation between my athletic successes and my academic successes. Being a good athlete made me want to be a better student and vice versa. When I was given the 2011 U.S. Army Reserve National Scholar Athlete Award, I knew for sure that these things go hand in hand.

When I got to medical school orientation, I was met by lectures discussing the stress of medical school and the increased likelihood of succumbing to stressdepression, and anxiety. Though aware of these issues, I had never showed any signs of these problems.

“I’ll be fine,” I said to myself. And I was.

I was a happy guy willing to learn. I was inspired by the people around me. School was challenging and demanding, but I was navigating it well. I was in the gym five days a week. I was feeling good. I knew that, as long as I stayed active, my successes in the classroom would continue to come. Then, one Friday afternoon, everything changed.

Broken left ring finger.

Just a finger, right? It can’t be that bad, right? I thought so too. I skipped the gym for a week and tried to let it rest. This is when my symptoms set in:

  1. I became more lethargic.
  2. I didn’t have a whole lot of motivation to complete my daily routine of studying.
  3. I felt the stress of school bearing down on me.

Another week of no exercise passed and I slipped further into this dark episode. Getting out of bed in the morning was a daily struggle. Waking up every morning, I found myself wrestling with the same question: “Is it even worth going today?”

I spent so much of my energy trying to put on a happy face so nobody would notice. Because of this, I had nothing left to give when it came to school. My grades started to slip. I was performing my worst since I got to this school.

And the strangest part of it all? I did not seem to care.

Another week passed of no exercise and I was arguably the most irritable I have ever been. After four weeks without exercise I essentially lost myself.

I couldn’t fix it. It was a vicious circle.

The longer I stayed out of the gym, the worse I became and the harder I felt it was to go back.

The longer I stayed out of the gym, the worse I became and the harder I felt it was to go back.

I knew there was some connection between mental and physical health. I had been benefiting from that very connection for years. It wasn’t until this year that I was on the detrimental end of the spectrum: a victim of poor mental health and waning physical health.

Spring break arrived (thank God) and I went home for a visit. My brother-in-law has always been a close confidant of mine. He is a gym owner, personal trainer and a great motivator. He saw that I was acting different and sat me down to talk about what was going on. Following our talk he told me to get changed.

We were going to the gym.

Though my finger limited what I was able to do, I received the best workout I’d had in a long time. I left the gym a new man. It was such a strange feeling. Four weeks of dreary existence suddenly erased by a one-hour workout.

I felt re-energized. Re-centered. Refocused. 

The gym was the obvious solution all along. It would have been very easy to go in and run on the treadmill or ride the bike. You don’t even need your finger for those things!

So why did it take four weeks and a talk with my brother-in-law to get me to go?

The real issue wasn’t as little as a broken finger. When the problems started to arise, I became blind to the utility of the gym and unmotivated to go. There were assignments to complete and exams to study for. I wasn’t going to waste the little energy I had in the gym. This is flawed logic and I am going to work my hardest to make sure it never happens again.

Medical school can be a dark and difficult time. I believe we can combat that darkness with physical fitness. If we exercise daily, we will keep our bodies healthy and our minds clear.

A week without exercise is all it took for me to become lost in the dark depths of medical school. Normally, an injury like that wouldn’t have phased me. In this environment, with so many other things knocking on the door, it became a huge set back. This was a tremendous learning experience for me.

For one, it reminded me that there is a clear and unmistakable connection between the mind and the body. They must be in harmony if you wish to live a balanced life. Secondly, it taught me that I need to address these issues at the forefront. I cannot let any obstacle get in the way of my fitness. I find solace during a good workout. This is a lifestyle I must dedicate myself to. I want to make sure that nobody else falls victim to a situation like mine.

I think my experiences will enhance my ability to recognize and approach people battling stress and anxiety. I now have a deeper understanding and appreciation of these problems and will be able to treat future patients both delicately and competently. For now, my goal is to start a program where I offer my services and expertise in the gym to individuals looking for an escape from medical school.

Obviously, the gym is not a cure for a mental imbalance. It is, however, a great resource to alleviate anxiety and reduce stress. I hope to help people find their way to a happy and healthy lifestyle while we navigate this winding road of medical school.


Preston DeHan

Osteopathic Medical Student - 1st Year (OMS1)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences