Anko - Third-Year Medical Student

Anko is currently a 3rd year medical student. He considers his logical steps into medical school as revolving around academic research, but his stepping stones into medicine as interest in traditional Chinese medicine, Zen Buddhism, and hospice care. His newest interest is bouldering (rock climbing) and caring for the skin on his finger pads.

1. What has your experience been like as an Asian in America?

To get a quick life summary out of the way: I am half Japanese, quarter Mexican, quarter White. I was born in Japan, and moved to CA at a young age, losing my Japanese immediately while acquiring English, a pity, I know.

My first thought is “do I count as being Asian?” which I think about every once in awhile, then I think, “meh, sure”. I don’t consider myself growing up in the “typical” Asian household. My parents were pretty Whitewashed, as in Bs were ok grades, good job, and let’s try a bit harder next time. I still did a few math problems during summers, but I also went to summer camp to play games all day. That’s a White thing right? Despite all of that, I feel inseparable from a Japanese cultural influence and a personality that started as keep your head down, make sacrifices, and please those around you. Maybe it was those early 5 years of my life in Japan that greatly shaped this persona. In effect, I feel a bit more comfortable around Asians. I grew up in an area with a relatively large Asian population. But, I still felt, I still feel, not really Asian. It is hard to describe, I don’t like to dwell on my ethnicity or the undeserved privilege of being a heterosexual male, with an “exotic” mixed race in this day and age. I am just “me”, not strongly connected to my race or ethnicity, but truly feeling resonance with Eastern philosophy, and really loving Japan for their onsens. To be honest, if I could speak fluent Japanese, I would probably feel much more Asian than I do now. But to actually answer the question, my experience being an Asian is an enigmatic connection towards other Asians, realizing in college how detrimental my “keep your head down” persona affected my life, and started to share deep secrets with close people, whom were most likely Asian. This opened new doors for me to see the complex, depressing beauty of this world. I find being from an “Asian” culture somewhat suppressing to finding your own voice, “live” in the US, and hostile to expressing your weaknesses, suffering, and personal emotions.

2. Why did you decide to go to medical school? How much influence did being Asian or having Asian parents play in your decision?

I grew up in San Jose, did not care for university and did not want to burden parents with cost. So after high school, 2 years of community college as a bio major, I transferred to UC Berkeley. It was mostly a random choice, and I was not really considering out of state schools. I graduated UCB with a BA in Molecular & Cell Biology and an emphasis in Immunology, studied abroad in Japan, did research in nutrition and immunology, then decided to work in academic research for 2 years in Pediatric Hematology-Oncology, before understanding completely that research was something I did not want to continue doing. I applied to about 25 and got into one med school, was waitlisted at a couple, and eventually got off the waitlist to one school and decided to go there!

I decided to go the medical school after finishing college at UC Berkeley. The idea of medical school was vaguely on my mind since community college and I was extremely fortunate that my actual interest was in biology at that time, which made the transition to applying to medical school very easy, since med school requires a set of core science classes that I already had to take for biology. Biology was not my initial gateway into medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine was. It made me rethink my life, it opened new doors, it sparked my interest in medicine and the human body, and eventually, it made me decide to go to medical school in a lengthy process that I can go on and on about. I talked about it in my personal statement. Maybe not the best strategy, but I did it anyway because that was the truth, and I was looking for medical schools that were accepting of that truth.

Being Asian probably got me into medical school indirectly due to my preoccupation with Eastern medicine and philosophy. My father was also interested in Eastern philosophy and is a licensed acupuncturist, which may have played some subtle role in all of this. My mother is the Asian. She works in an office job. Neither pushed any career onto me, nor would I let them.

Sorry off topic, but some people have told me being Mexican would probably help me get into med school. I don’t think anyone should ever say that… I think it is disrespectful to everyone’s individual struggle, especially individuals of color. I do wish to be among more Mexicans in med school. Also, I think the selection process… the whole application process is complete trash. Don’t let society define your “chances” of getting into med school. Work with what you have, work your ass off, and more importantly work smart, because life is inherently NOT FAIR. But that’s ok we move on.

3. What was your strategy to get into med school? How would you describe that process, what you feel you did right and what could you have done better?

Oh man the process is brutal.

I followed a checklist, almost accidentally, which probably helped.

Not everyone who goes into med school follows a checklist, but in general I think it helps because in life, sometimes you have to play the game in a way. Even if the game is shit and borderline unethical.

Things to think about and do well in: MCAT, grades, clinical experience (probably the most important), research, unique aspect of self / what you are bringing to the table, turn in applications asap, and prep for the interview. There are so many paths and so much complexity in what you can do. There are many resources out there on the web to learn more. I suggest going to at least one premed conference. Also, student doctor network can be useful but also toxic if you tend to perseverate over stressful and complex things such as applying to med school.

Everyone will say this, but have your own story, tell your own story, what makes you you, and how does that fit into the field of medicine, and own it.

I could have done better on the application front by turning things in earlier and not procrastinating. I believe that is important. MCAT could have been improved if I focused solely on the MCAT, and I probably could have prepared better for interviews by practicing with more clinicians and people in general.

In general, my overall strategy was don’t give a shit if other people are doing things one way

4. How did you study for the MCAT?

I joined an MCAT prep course, did the work. I think it was about 2 months, but did not do as much studying on my own as I should have because I was also working almost full time in a research lab during the same time period. I think taking time to focus only on the MCAT prep/studying would have been beneficial. I was always too tired at the end of the day after research and prep that I did not want to study at the end of the day.

5. How did you choose which schools to apply to and the one you are currently attending?

I could have took a bit more time to do this as well. I just applied for the top schools in family medicine / primary care across the country plus all California schools. Applied to about 25 schools. The best data point to look for is the out of state acceptance rate to gauge your chances with the school.

I chose my school because it was in California and in state tuition is nice, California is nice, the program was appealing.

6. How are you financing medical school?

All loans.

7. How would you describe what med school is really like to someone with no idea? What’s a typical day like as a med student? Is there one?     

First 2 years is filled with studying like never before. Try not to think about how well others are doing beyond your performance as it is easy to feel inadequate. Everyone is trying to do their best to keep their head above water. Some people may go above and beyond, but of course there are a lot of type A people in med school.

The next years in clinical rotation are completely different than the first 2 years being a student like all of those years in college. You are going to be asked questions from doctors and patients and preparing as well as you can for the bombardment of new experiences and situations will be the only way to make the most of the time. It is impossible to know everything, you will feel like the first 2 years didn’t prepare you much at all at times. But it will all be ok in the end. Or so they say.

It is impossible to describe what your day will be like, but you are immersed in an entirely different world. You may see a woman being taken to the operating room for an emergency C-section, you may be thanked for your time with a patient recovering from damaged heart, you may see a young girl with a fractured skull from a rollover motor vehicle accident, you may get lost in the hospital on your way to the CT room, you may see an old coworker being opened up in surgery and see his blood vessels being cauterized while a hernia is repaired, you may play foosball with a young man with a chest tube recovering from a spontaneous pneumothorax or lung deflation, you may listen to a 50 year old patient describe his struggle to explain to his teenage son that he is dying from metastatic pancreatic cancer, you may see a patient with a rare disease that you remember reading about the first month of medical school.

8. What has been the toughest moment for you in med school so far? How about the most life-altering?

This is difficult to assess. Maybe being overwhelmed with the beginning of clerkship year, when you thought you learned a ton in medical school, wait till rotations in the hospital. The daily grind and keeping up with things in the hospital really makes life balance a struggle.

Most life altering... probably when I started to realize how much I enjoyed psychiatry over any other specialty. I went into med school and rotations in the hospital thinking I would do family medicine. Now that goal is being challenged with a new interest and a new insight into how medicine is practiced and my own personal development. You never know where you may end up sometimes.

9. Becoming a doctor is a long path. What are your thoughts on the number of years it takes before you can actually start a career practicing medicine?

Being in medicine feels like such a different life than most people. It can feel isolating. Other than the people who are also in graduate education, it feels as if everyone is working more or less, making money, and living the life you envisioned for yourself 10 years into the future. I am in my 3rd year of med school and I am still at least 5 years away from finishing residency, probably more. While others may be investing money or making decisions on buying a house or where to live or where to work, you are still a student, nothing more. Once you reach graduation, you will probably still feel like you are not prepared to practice medicine. Forever a newbie. So, I try not to think about that and keep my head forward onto the next task.

10. What area of medicine are you hoping to practice?

Like I said, psychiatry is interesting at this point. I enjoy listening to stories, immerse into the lives of others, really understand what makes them tick, and having the time to spend with a patient vs the 15 min visit of primary care where the primary concern is a small acute issue that the patient brings up. I believe in the value of investing into your own mental health and that the impact of your mental health reaches to every cell of your physical body and health.

11. How do you maintain balance in med school? Are you involved in anything on or off campus? How do your other hobbies or passions relate to medicine?

I tend to prioritize certain things sometimes, time with friends, exercise. My other time will be filled in with studying. I will therefore pressure myself with a limited block of time to study. I think balancing time all depends on everyone’s individual mindset and what their priorities are. There is no wrong or right answer.

I rock climb now, not really related to med school, but the exercise is nice. My interest in Eastern medicine and Buddhism affects my view of medicine and my future practice as well. My master’s project was related to acupuncture. I hope to practice acupuncture one day!

12. How do you define success in med school?

Find balance in your life, which means find outlets to stress, keep up a healthy diet/exercise, continue to spend time with important people, and continue to study. Understand that there is always more to learn, acknowledge the difficulty, and be nice to yourself. Obviously I am not concerned with becoming a neurosurgeon.

13. What advice would you give someone who is seriously considering med school? Who is on the fence? How about someone who just started med school?

Know that it is a long, long road and to get through it you have to like some aspect of medicine that you can hold onto when times are rough. Here is something I sent to someone recently:

One thing to keep in mind is that many people who go into college for premed, do not go into medicine. Don't think of this as a bad thing, but don't feel like you will be tied down into just medicine, teaching, and research. I have many friends who have done other things, like going into tech (making phone apps) after being a bio major and applying to med school. It all depends on your interests and you will have plenty of time to change your path even after graduation.

That said, don't be afraid to choose a major that is not in science. You can still be a humanities major and be premed (you just might have to take a few more courses). So my first question for you is what are your interests?

Next, think about why you want to go into medicine. The path to get into medicine is just the tip of the iceberg, being in medicine is a rigor in itself and you will be in stressful environments, studying, taking loans, and generally being a student while your friends are probably working and making money.

What are your motivations towards medicine? A strong motivation will take you far, it will be what pushes you through to be the doctor you want to be.

So you don't NEED to know right now, but before you apply to medical school, you really have to want it and really understand WHY you want to be a doctor. This motivation will supersede indecision. The best way to truly understand this, in my opinion, is to volunteer in clinical settings. Join a free clinic that serves low income/homeless, shadow doctors in health centers or hospitals, work with patients in any way, something in medicine. You need a reason to apply to medical school because med school interviewers are going to ask you about WHY. For me, my motivation came from seeing a Chinese medicine health practitioner work to diagnose patients. I saw his connection with the patient, the trust building, I was amazed at the power of observational diagnosis, it made me more interested in the secrets of the human body vs just learning about how cells worked, which is also kind of cool.

And don't let the difficulty of premed courses deter you if you really want to be a doctor. My classmates have struggled with premed courses, it is normal. If you really want to be a doctor, go for it, and study hard, but mostly study smart!

But also, you don't have to be a doctor. There are plenty other things out there. Just saying this to hopefully relieve any burden if you feel this.

For those in med school, find balance, find a therapist to work with, keep up your physical AND mental health, study smart, and you will learn more and more as you go, the learning will never end.

14. If you could turn back time, would you still choose to go to med school?

Yes, I would. I think it is such a privilege to learn so much about how the human body works and to be able to work so closely with other people and possibly become an important part of their lives. AND in addition be able to play a part in changing the practice of medicine in the future.

15. What are you currently reading? / What book has been the most impactful for your life and/or on your med school career?

I have no time to read for pleasure haha. No, I actually do, but I don’t. Last book I read probably was Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut.

Book most impactful for this stage of my life was probably Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. A great, short intro to Zen Buddhism.


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