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  • Writer's pictureShirin Dason

Practical tips from a parent in medical school:

By : Abby Kapsack


As a mom of 3 young kids and a medical student, I have spent lots of time trying to figure out the best way to “do it all.” Experience has taught me that I really can’t do it all, but here are some of the methods that have worked for me in getting as close as I possibly can.

 

Studying tips:

When your time is so limited, you have to learn to use it wisely. As a medical student, there is always so much to learn and study. Here are some tips I used to study smart and increase my productivity while not compromising on spending time with my family.

●      Set boundaries - From the beginning of medical school, I was very conscious about not spending all my time studying (nothing to do with having kids - I think this is important no matter what stage of life you are in!). I knew that becoming a physician was a LONG road and felt that if I didn’t set limits from the beginning, I was sure to burn out pretty early on. For me, these boundaries mean I don’t study from Friday night until Saturday night. I don’t study until after 8:00 pm when my kids are asleep. I don’t book meetings during dinner time or bed time. These boundaries help me stay productive while not burning out or missing important time with my family.

●      Do one thing at a time - when I’m studying, I am fully focused on my studying. When I am with my family, I am fully focused on being with my family. I never try to study while playing with my kids and I never sit down to a study session if my kids are with me. It’s just not worth it! I never end up remembering anything I studied and my kids feel that I am not paying enough attention to them. This practice also helps me be present in whatever I am doing. You can do it all, you just can’t do it all at once. 

●      Study effectively the first time - I know a lot of my peers just read through the slides or manuals several times as their study technique.  However, I always find that in order for anything to stick in my head using that method I have to read the same thing at least 3-4 times! That takes a lot of time. Instead, I have been using a method in both pre-clerkship and clerkship that not only helps me remember things better the first time, but also provides me with a reference that I can easily access if I have to look something up quickly on the wards. While studying, I fill out a chart with the following 5 columns for each condition:

1.     Disease

2.     Pathophysiology

3.     Presentation

4.     Investigations

5.     Treatment

It does take some time, but I find it significantly more effective and also gives me a            document to quickly review before the exam when there is no time to read through the whole manual again.

●      Schedule it out - I LOVE a good schedule. At the beginning of each block or rotation, I plan out all the studying I needed to do until the exam. This helps me stay on track but more importantly, I know that if I finish my allotted studying for the day, I can take a break to relax or be with my family without feeling stressed or guilty that I may be falling behind. In addition to a big picture schedule, I would schedule each day and include breaks. This helped me be totally focused on task because I knew that I would have time for a break later.

●      Start early - I can’t emphasize this enough. When you have other responsibilities outside of medical school, you NEED to start studying early. Many of my friends would start studying the week before the exam but they had the luxury of spending every minute of the day that they weren’t in school studying which gave them enough time to cover all the material. When you have kids, that just isn’t possible. I always found that starting to study right from the beginning made everything less stressful (and also had the bonus of making you look really prepared on the wards!).

 

Creating systems:

I like to create systems that help things in my home run smoothly. Some of this has evolved over time as I have gotten more help with my house chores but here I share all the things I do to keep my home life and school life organized.

●      Online groceries - during the pandemic, I started ordering my groceries online for pickup and I haven’t stopped. This has been such a game changer. Finding time to go to the store is always a challenge when you have a medical student’s schedule. Plus, I always found that perusing the aisles left me spending much more money than I had intended to. At the beginning of each week I sit down and make a meal plan (now that my daughter is older and has food preferences I like to include her in the meal planning). Then I can easily make a shopping list from the menu and search each item individually which saves me from buying things that I don’t really need. The best part is I can order from my bed at midnight, from my phone while commuting on the bus, or in a 15 minute break slot at school.

●      Leftovers for lunch - I always make enough dinner so that we can all take leftovers for lunch. When dinner is finished, I just pack up the leftovers into containers and everyone’s lunches are made! This saves me so much time and energy (and money too).

●      Crock pot dinners - if there was ever a day that I knew I’d be home late or had a meeting in the early evening, I would make a crock pot dinner in the morning before heading out. This way when I walked in the door at 6:30 pm, dinner was ready and I didn’t have to start throwing something together.

●      Medical podcasts - at the beginning of each block (pre-clerkship) or rotation (clerkship), I would ask residents if they had any podcast recommendations that had good educational content for the specialty I was on. I would use these to study while doing other chores around the house like folding laundry, washing dishes, organizing toys etc. This way I felt that I was getting some studying in while getting other stuff done and it also really helped a lot of the information stick better than just reading through slides or a 300+ page manual.

●      Asking for help in advance - when I had a big exam coming up, I would ask for help from my supports in advance. My parents were a huge help in this area. They would take my kids out for the day on Sunday and give me the whole day to study. This way I knew I would have the uninterrupted time I needed and I also knew my kids were not only taken care of, but having the best time with their grandparents (leaving me guilt-free!)

●      GET CLEANING HELP - I can’t emphasize this one enough. I know how hard it is, especially because this costs a lot of money and being a student usually means there isn‘t extra money lying around. The money will come eventually, but you won’t ever be able to get the limited amount of time you have with your children back. Spend the money now so you don’t have to waste your limited time at home with your family  on things that can easily be done by someone other than you. Think of it as an investment in your family. I do want to emphasize that everyone’s financial situation is different and this may not be possible for everyone. Personally, I found other ways to cut back like buying less coffee, eating less take out, doing my nails at home, holding off on that new dress. From my experience, if you can stretch yourself to make it work, it has been life changing.

 

Mindset:

So much of this journey is about our mindset. There are days that are so challenging but drawing on our inner strength can make all the difference when things feel so tough. Here are some of my mantras and inspiring thoughts that I lean on whenever I feel overwhelmed.

●      This is a choice - I like to remind myself that everything I am doing is my choice. I chose to go to medical school, nobody forced me. I chose to have children, nobody forced me. If things were not working for me, I could make choices to change my situation. I remind myself that I am blessed to be in a position to continue to make these choices and to be fulfilling two of my biggest dreams.

●      Having a life outside of medicine is healthy - medicine is a huge part of my life but it is not my whole life. There are definitely days where medicine can be a dark and lonely place to be. Having my family to bring me fulfillment and joy outside of medicine has been a huge source of strength for me. I also find that it has made me a more kind and compassionate member of my patients’ care teams. I see things differently after becoming a mother and I believe that is an asset to my medical career.

●      Quality over quantity - I try to remind myself that the quality of my interactions with my children has a more significant impact on them vs the amount of time that I spend with them. For example, dinner and bed time are special times in our home. Unless I am on call, we prioritize dinner as a family every single night. It gives us time to hear about each other’s days and catch up even if it is the first time we are seeing each other all day (like when I was on surgery and left the house at 4:45 am!). I also do my best to put my kids to bed when I am home. We always talk about one thing that made us happy, one thing that made us sad, and one mistake we each made that day. We chat about how we can do better the next day. And before I leave their room, we have a whole silly routine about how nothing can make me stop loving them. It is our special time to be together and for my kids to know that even if I am busy and out all day, their mommy loves. They know that even when I am busy with school, my number one most important and valuable job is to be their mom.

●      Life is not a race - in medicine, it’s so easy to feel the pressure zip through your training as fast as possible. I try and remind myself that my success is not defined by how quickly I finish. Everyone has different goals along their own journey. But life is not a race. The one who finishes first isn’t necessarily the winner. To me, winning means feeling happy and fulfilled wherever I am.

●      Don’t drop the glass balls - I love the analogy of juggling balls - some are glass, others are rubber. It’s okay if you drop the rubber ones. They’ll bounce around but stay intact. Just make sure to focus on not dropping the glass balls. Everyone’s glass balls are different, but take the time to identify what your non-negotiables are and do everything in your power to hold on tight to those. And then the rubber balls? Don’t let them take up your time or brain space. Delegate, delegate, delegate.

●      Be grateful for your village - Be grateful for the people in your life that make it all possible. Take a moment to appreciate all that they do and let them know that you recognize it and that you appreciate it.

●      I can do hard things - Nothing is forever. When things feel so hard, I remind myself that it won't always be like this. We can all do hard things for a short amount of time.  For example, I found my surgery rotation to be utterly exhausting and it was a very hard time for me. But I knew it only lasted 8 weeks. So I could do it for 8 weeks.

●      It will all be okay in the end - one of my favourite quotes is this: “It will all be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” This provides me with a tremendous sense of comfort when things feel out of control or when I feel that I am failing in an area of my life. I am confident that it will all work out in the end. Even if in this moment things feel upside-down, I know that we will work it all out and I trust that we all end up exactly where we need to be.

 

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