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Jan. 05, 2010

Some words on balance, lifestyle and compassion

by Dana Greenfield

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School let out a week ago, but my life is still quite busy. Especially with singing in the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. We have numerous holiday concerts in Oakland, the South Bay, even the San Francisco Jail. To keep up the momentum and energy, before every concert we ‘circle up.’ This means that the entire choir—all 50-60 of us—in our teal, purple and gold robes joins hands in a circle while our director leads us a pre-show pep-talk-like prayer. Any member who’s going through rough times—cancer, a loved one’s death, unemployment—is invited to the inner circle.

To close off this supportive round-up, we go around the circle each saying a positive word: ‘love’, ‘peace’, ‘home’, ‘turkey’, ‘mom’. I usually say ‘compassion’. When I first started, I felt awkward in this environment. Prayer circles weren’t really my thing, but having a go-to word made it easier. But that not so little word is also a very large reminder to myself of why I sing with this choir, why I’m in medicine, and what I hope not to lose through the rigors of my medical training.

Mom, in your last post, you commented on the importance of balance, and a difference that you see in my generation of future docs-to-be. The shift in the culture of medical education is reflected in institutional changes, such as the curbing of residency work rules and the shifting values in medical school admissions. Having high scores may be important, but they don’t mean everything. UCSF happens to be one of those schools that values diverse life experiences and personal qualities—all that can be read between the numbers. (One reason why I chose it!)

While UCSF’s standards are quite high, the admissions process is designed to look beyond MCAT scores and GPAs. Diversity is one of their greatest priorities. Diversity doesn’t just mean ethnicity, gender, or religion. I’m always amazed at the variety of talents, skills, passions, majors, languages, and activities that can be found amongst my classmates.

We pursue music, advocacy, activism, run marathons and run non-profits, serve actively in the air force, nanny, and even write novels (my roommate, another 2nd year med student, just signed with a literary agent). This all means that I belong to a vibrant community not just smart and fascinating people, but happy and fulfilled individuals.

We can do this because our classes are completely pass/fail, there are no rankings, lecture hours are strictly limited with a very flexible schedule, and the deans give us a lot of freedom to shape the curriculum, create electives, and use the abundant resources the university has to offer.

But I think it’s more than balance. It’s about enriching our abilities to care for and work with people.

Yes, it’s about holding on to who we are, without being swallowed up by the white coat. But really, what I see in myself and my generation is more of a paradigm shift: we believe that juggling all of our many interests will make us better physicians not just because we’re happier, but because of what those pursuits teach us about life, compassion, and about caring for others.

Medicine is still a calling. We still devote ourselves to it. But now we’ve just expanded what it means and what it takes to be accomplished and compassionate physicians. Singing has kept me sane, but what’s more is that being a part of a caring community has taught me more about healing than any lecture ever could.

About Dana Greenfield

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