By Karl Chen, MD
Let me be clear, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination “adventurous”. The word I associate with rollercoasters is not “fun”, it’s “deathtrap”. My ideal vacation involves sleeping in, video games, a good book, pizza, and ice cream, usually in quantities detrimental to physical health. As reflected in my choice of college and medical school (both of which were less than a 3 hour drive from home), I have managed to live my life in a sensible, risk-adverse way. There has, however, been a problem.
Growing up, I adored books of all kinds. The narrative that I probably embraced most fully was the bildungsroman, which, loosely put, is the coming of age story. A young naive protagonist journeys into the world and encounters, and ultimately overcomes, conflict and difficulty. That process of experiencing, struggling, and winning over adversity is what shapes a protagonist to becoming a wiser, more competent individual. And (perhaps unfortunately) I believe that’s true, not just in literature, but in real life. If this paragraph and the first one sound at odds to you, then you’re right. As residency began pushing me to struggle, to be uncomfortable, and grow past that discomfort, it also exposed this deep-seated need buried by a lifetime of sensible excuses to pursue a dramatic, life-changing experience.
And so, last March I found myself sitting in Miami International Airport with sweaty palms about to leave the US on my first solo international trip. Final destination, Xela, Guatemala, the city where I would be living with a host family and studying Spanish for 3 weeks. Writing now, I can honestly say that Guatemala was simultaneously exciting and mundane. Time passed in Xela in the same way it did back home, with me reading, sleeping in, and eating junk food. Overall, apart from a few local excursions and getting lost along a local bus route, the trip was quite unremarkable. The excitement came from living in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar customs. It came from meeting people with different experiences and values from my own and drawing comparisons to my own life. As a visitor to a country, I felt vulnerable in a way not dissimilar to the first days of medical school or residency.
I returned from that trip almost identical to how I left but with a deeper understanding of Spanish (though still not fluent), and appreciation for a culture apart from my own. That experience hasn’t changed me from a dedicated homebody into a dedicated globetrotter. Rather, the most valuable part of this trip was for me to step more completely outside my comfort zone than I had ever done before, and realize that the view from outside was both completely different and remarkably the same.
I still believe in the changing power of experiencing new things and situations. For me, it started with the new responsibility of being a doctor, “the” doctor, for my patients. The 2nd patient I ever saw in resident clinic, I made a mistake that I hope to never make again. My first patient death on an inpatient rotation prompted me to learn more about and become more comfortable with end of life care. The first 5 cervical exams I got wrong, the code blues, and all the awkward patient conversations during intern year were, in retrospect, as life-changing in their own way as 3 weeks in another country.
People are like gases. We stretch and bend and expand to fill the bubbles/containers we make for ourselves. Learning and growing in meaningful ways involves pushing past the limits of where we are most content to create that larger space. What the trip abroad and residency in general has illustrated is that both unique and common experiences/discomforts can result in profound changes. In the past 2 years, my well-defined comfort zone has been stretched and pulled in places large and small. And sometimes in ways I expected, but often in ways I did not, I have grown as a person and as a physician because of it.
Karl Chen, MD is a second year Family Medicine Resident in the Department of Family & Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine.