On Fear, Mountains, Humility, and Starting Medical School

Stefan Wheat '18
uvmmedicine blogger Stefan Wheat ’18

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear.”

The epigraph above, a Bene Gesserit quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune, resonates for anyone who has applied to medical school. Fear petrifies us, leaving us utterly incapable of demonstrating our potential. I cannot count the number of times that I have been afraid in the process of my pre-medical education. Now I trade my fear of medical school interviews and the MCAT for new sources of dread, both familiar and altogether foreign. These new fears are our reward for entrance into medical school. Hooray!

One of the principal problems with fear, particularly in the realm of medicine, is that it can cause a collapse in communication. Approximately one year ago I experienced a fear that is unparalleled in my experience while descending from the summit of Glacier Peak in the North Cascades of Washington State. I clutched to a hand hold, balancing precariously on a small rock outcropping and attempting to traverse to a ledge where I thought I might safely glissade (a controlled slide using an ice-ax) down a steep snowfield. My climbing partner had already traversed the snow field, judging (correctly) it too steep to safely glissade. We never should have separated, but a visceral fear overcame us and we stopped communicating. We both made it off the mountain with only minor cuts and bruises, but we later agreed that we had both never before felt so exposed, so desperate, and so afraid. Clinging to that rock face and crying uncontrollably, I can still remember with vivid clarity the first time I prayed to a higher power.

Sometimes as young, successful (you are going to medical school, you must be doing something right) adults, we can begin to think of ourselves as invincible. Mountains keep me humble and I think I will be humbled repeatedly over the course of the next four years as a medical student. Mountaineering requires communication and support from our friends; so too will making it through medical school. We have all emerged from a system that is designed to pit us against one another. This system was never sustainable and lacked the capacity to foster strong and open communication amongst peers. My hope is that we can all set aside that small part of ourselves that looks at our classmates as the competition.

The Avett Brothers are playing at the Lake Champlain Maritime Festival two days before we start orientation, and I would encourage everyone to attend. One of my favorite songs from the Avett Brothers, entitled “Weight of Lies,” is about moving to a new place, making it particularly relevant to my current situation. One line from the song warns that the worst thing a person can do is “tell everyone his name in pride and confidence but leaving out his doubts.” I am unbelievably excited to be going to school in such a beautiful place. Ever since I was admitted to the University of Vermont College of Medicine, I have been dreaming of skiing at Stowe and Sugarbush and exploring the local mountain biking scene. But I am also full of doubt. I am nervous as to whether or not I will measure up, and I already feel shell-shocked at the prospect of leaving some of my closest friends on the West Coast, some of whom I have known since kindergarten. However, as I consider how irreplaceable these friends are, I am reminded that I will soon be surrounded by new friends, with whom I will form bonds that will last a lifetime because they will be forged in the crucible that is medical school. These next four years will be full of marvel, doubt, joy, and yes, fear; let’s face them together.

1 thought on “On Fear, Mountains, Humility, and Starting Medical School”

  1. Pingback: On Fear, Mountains, Humility, and Starting Medical School | Aspiring Docs Diaries

What are your thoughts about this topic?