The Juggler’s Apprentice

10.21 AM, General surgery ward. My eyes were focused on my shoe laces, in a bid to escape being noticed by the professor critiquing our patient history taking skills. My mind was pathologically blank as usual, and I was quietly counting the minutes till 11.00 AM, when we’d be released. “39 more minutes to safety,” I told myself, acutely aware that 39 minutes felt more like 39 years. No way I could escape being grilled. I felt the panic monster lurking menacingly beneath the surface, looking for a crack to squeeze through and wreck havoc in my already flustered mind. I started to drift as a defense mechanism, and the loud, confident voice of the seasoned professor of surgery receded into the background as my true self took the helm. It was time to follow the yellow brick road again. Time to look into the looking glass.

Rays of light were shooting into the ward on the 5th floor, illuminating an 18 year old boy whose leg had been amputated following a snake bite. I had already listened to his story, and I purposely blocked processing the feelings that followed after. His life had been changed in an instant, and the randomness of the event and its fateful consequences was too much for me. I have come across many patients with similar stories, some caused by human error and negligence and some simply unavoidable.

I only have two years before being thrust into the battlefield, where my decisions will mean life or death for some poor soul out there. That thought weighs heavily on mind all the time, and it has made me more serious and eager to absorb as much knowledge and expertise as I can. I still feel woefully inadequate, and I do not feel as if this is something that will be cured with time. There’s so much to learn and so little time. Quite humbling, if you ask me.

I need to be more disciplined in my time management. Medicine is important, but I do not want to be a horse with blinkers, narrowly focusing on the race track and ignoring everything else. I am in the prime of my youth, and there are other aspects of my life that I would love to explore and experience. However, this can be difficult when you have reading assignments and other work to do every day. Difficult, but not impossible. How well can you juggle? That’s the million dollar question.

I had blinkers on once, in primary school and in high school. Lack of sufficient exposure convinced me that the only career that would be acceptable to my ‘intellect’ was medicine. It is no wonder then that many children who have performed extremely well in national examinations always want to be neurosurgeons, cardio-thoracic surgeons, oncologists and maybe civil engineers. I don’t blame them. Having been one of those high achievers who found themselves on the front page of the newspaper, my responses were no different. What troubles me is how different my choices in life would have been if I had been exposed to more information and more role models then. If we were told that there was more to school than simply getting good grades and joining a prestigious university for an even more prestigious degree course, how many brilliant entrepreneurs would have found their calling earlier?

Once bitten, twice shy. I now dedicate huge chunks of time into reading widely and deeply. My day starts with a sampling of both local and international newspapers and opinion pieces from veritable sites such as Project Syndicate, Vox.com, International Consortium of Investigative journalists, The Atlantic, The New York Times and our very own Daily Nation and Business Daily. I assume that on average, I consume 50-70 articles in a single day. It is only after getting through the general news and op-ed pieces on economics, politics and technology that I open my medicine focused apps such as Medscape Medpulse and Read by QXMD. The sad thing is that I can only do so much in a single day. By the time I start getting exposed to the latest trends in medicine, the day has already ended and my tired mind immediately switches off and I only come to in the morning, after being bitten my blood thirsty mosquitoes for failing to set up my net properly and getting into the sheets.

Working online (writing articles for sale) also takes another huge chunk of my free time, and balancing work, getting exposure and medicine has taken a huge toll on me. I want to have my cake and eat it as well, and this is proving harder than I ever thought possible. Working has opened my mind to the possibilities in entrepreneurship, and rather than cutting back, I have come up with good business ideas that I want to focus on during the three month holiday we’ll have from June. Reading books and articles that do not focus on medicine has shown me a world I never knew existed. I have become an information junkie, and the most painful thing you can do to me right now is cut off my internet access (thank you Airtel for unlimited internet!)

I am a virile young man, and I also need my share of female company. I cannot report much success in this sector, though not for lack of trying. However, this should be attributed more to my own finickiness and my dangerous flirtation with ultra-conservative girls who require a massive investment of time before they can open up. They reflect who I am deep down though, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is strangely pleasing to put in the work, to focus intently on one girl and give her my undivided attention without any expectation of immediate reward. This is an area of my life that I want to consolidate soon. I crave structure and order, and I am optimistic that the apple of my eye will soon succumb to my persistent ‘charm’ ( 😉 ).

Juggling all these competing interests is not easy. I’m sure some would tell me to focus on one thing at a time in a linear fashion. I disagree with this approach, mainly because of the uncertainty that exists in this life (life changes in a heartbeat. Case in point, the 18 yr old dealing with the aftermath of a snakebite). I am more of a student in being an expert generalist than a specialist. This can lead to conflict and disagreements in medical school, where the clarion call is, “You must specialize!” It is my experience that statements containing the word ‘must’ are usually flawed. Life is not linear but throws all sorts of curve balls at you when you least expect it. Focusing on a linear progression of events and expecting to come out all rounded seems to be more of a fallacy than gospel truth.

This approach means that there are days when my mind will be a Tabula rasa during ward rounds. While this is not acceptable, and I’m working diligently to be a competent doctor, it cannot be completely avoided. It is a sacrifice worthy of the prize to be attained.

The ward teaching ended early. I escaped unscathed and quickly left to tick off more items on my to-do list for that day. A juggler’s apprentice does not have time to dilly dally.