One Third.

Memorial Day — it’s already here. Or maybe, depending upon your perspective, it’s finally here. If you identify as a service member of the US military, my heartfelt thanks and prayers to you and your family. I can only imagine the sacrifices made by both you and those you hold dear, let alone the experiences you’ve had and memories that likely cross your mind today (and everyday) as a result of that service. I would guess today carries a lot more meaning to you than the “average” individual. A date viewed as the “unofficial” start of summer and an excuse to grill excessive amounts of brats and burgers shifts to poignant memories of decisions made and people you spent many long and difficult hours with. I can’t and won’t pretend to know what today must feel like for you, but know I (and so many others) are especially grateful for all you have done and continue to go through.

I think days to pause and remember are good things. A time to reflect, process, and let go of some difficult memories or maybe revisit and laugh at others. This Memorial Day is a uniquely special one to me as it lands on May 25 — the seven year anniversary of my injury. I was injured at age 21, so as of today, I have officially lived in this “wheeling existence” for a third of the length of time I lived walking. Such a, dare I say, accomplishment may not seem like a mark worth noting, but thinking back to a time when living seven days as a wheeler seemed impossible…. well, making it and thriving (generally) for seven years is a beautiful thing.

Unsurprisingly, this anniversary feels quite a bit different than the previous six. Sure, perhaps some of that is the result of the classic “older and wiser” adage, but I’m pretty sure I can give a large nod to the state of the world and our country as we’re forced to contend with the unknown of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m experiencing this anniversary some 200 miles away from my family as I continue to “shelter in place” in IL, social distancing from friends, and spending more time with my cat than is probably healthy (though I don’t think she minds anymore…). I’ve had anniversaries away from my family before, all of which could be attributed to the grind and commitments of a dual degree training program, but this, “you probably shouldn’t be at home right now” is obviously a bit different. It feels strange to not be able to laugh side-by-side with my sisters, shake my head at some ridiculous remark made by my Dad, or give my Mom a huge hug and tease her about her “convict” ways when I was in the rehab hospital and she would “steal” forks and mayo packets from the cafeteria so we could make egg and/or chicken salad in my hospital room (true story). I guess I just didn’t expect this to be the way this anniversary would go down. And you know, I’m pretty sure I’m in the same boat as the majority of the US when I say I didn’t ever expect something like this to happen.

That’s the funny thing about life and expectations, right?
They rarely align.

While I don’t intend or want to minimize the implications and impact of a global pandemic, I can’t help but notice the parallels that exist between the experience of now and what I went through seven years ago. A world seemingly turned upside down. Questions of if things will ever feel normal again. Wondering how and what it will look like to return to work or school. Having to adjust and adapt on a daily if not hourly basis as you learn more, enter a new environment, or want to perform a different task. Having to maneuver and go out into the world with some additional physical items (though I promise you, masks are much cheaper and easier to manage than wheelchairs…even if they consistently fog up your glasses).

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Solstice

Screen Shot 2019-12-21 at 5.53.57 PMI know today isn’t actually the end of the year, but there’s something about the winter solstice that feels like a conclusion. The shortest “day” of the year, marking the end of that slow march towards less and less sunlight we’ve all been experiencing since the middle of summer. Funny thing about conclusions, they often serve as both ending and beginning.

For example:

  • I finished my first quarter of graduate classes, and I’ll begin my next quarter after the holidays.
  • I just burnt through my Christmas tree scented candle, and now I’ll light the wick on another wintery smelling candle (literally, the candle is called “Winter”…. don’t ask me what winter smells like).
  • A Hallmark Christmas movie ended a few moments ago, which means another one with basically the same story line (just different actors) starts in t-minus two seconds.

Endings and beginnings, they’re almost hard to separate but we do it anyway. Maybe it’s to help compartmentalize all the experiences and stories our lives contain, setting them in boxes and storing them away, maybe to be opened or maybe to avoid opening. I know I have a “my walking life” box that gets opened on occasion, memories and experiences I love to remember sitting right on top, ready to be pulled out and put to use.  But of course, there are those memories I shove down deep into that box’s corners, forgetting they even exists until one gets caught on something and is unexpectedly brought into my consciousness.

It’s that ending of one part of my life and beginning of another that I can’t stop thinking about today; contemplating the threads found woven through both pieces and those abruptly cut off and never restarted. Perhaps its the shortness of the day and temporality of the daylight that are serving as a reminder of all those things that came to an end much earlier than I had ever expected. Expectations, maybe that’s where I’m going with this post (I’m a bit out of practice…it’s been awhile). Continue reading

Transitioning…again

I told myself once my board exam and med school classes were over I would write on a more regular basis — get back to the “once a month” kind of schedule. Sounds reasonable right? Then again, reality is a rather fickle beast and I don’t think I’m the only one who finds an infinite supply of the proverbial “something else” that make their way onto my to do list. Funny how those “something elses” manage to squash my motivation and ruin all of my best intentions…

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These visitors are one of my excuses for being preoccupied 🙂

I’m still a bit bewildered that today is already August 1st. The second year med students started their classes on Monday and the brand new first years are on day two of their journey into medicine. It’s fun seeing the new faces on campus and the returning, whole-year-wiser second years. They seem to bring this unique energy that I don’t think I realized was missing from the hallways.

Naturally, all that energy also brings back a lot of little reminders of my own foray into those first few days of classes – the nerves, the unknown, the questions, the self-doubt. Yet, those thoughts are starkly contrasted by the acknowledgement of just how far I’ve come and what I’ve managed to accomplish (but with a twinge of the ever present knowledge that I still have so much more to learn and do).

Honestly, they’re reminders that have been unexpectedly helpful.

As a dual degree student, you have a few additional transitions added into your educational journey.
1) Start of medical school
2) Start of lab and graduate/PhD training
3) Return to medical school, clinical care, and the hospital — then graduate

While I definitely knew that those steps and stages were all a part of the training I signed up for, I know I didn’t truly KNOW what that really meant. I also didn’t KNOW how it would feel to have to take one step and then another down a path with footing that sometimes feels a little too uncertain to rest my full weight on.

Currently, I find myself at number two on the list, a whole two months into my quest for a PhD. Two months down, an undetermined amount of time to go.

I think that’s one of the challenges of the transition to grad school and lab life, there is a path, but it’s somewhat vague and highly mutable. You decide if you go left or right, if you slow down and dig deeper or sprint ahead.  Perhaps you’ll find something totally new and unexpected during that sprint. Or… it’ll turn out to be a dead end and you have to spend a bunch of time back-tracking while pondering all the effort and energy that now feels wasted (although “wasted” is a matter of perspective). Continue reading

Six of one, Half a Dozen of the Other

There are certain things that make me nostalgic.

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Sheep were a fair project — probably the only one I was every actually prepared for

Driving the route that used to be my daily commute to high school, remembering the 7am jazz band practices or late nights following musical dress rehearsals. Going to the Outagamie County Fair and remembering the daily (and then some) runs to Walmart that occurred the week of entry day to finish those last minute 4-H projects that probably should have been done months ago. And today. Today, May 25, always makes me stop and remember.

Today marks six years, adding another tally mark to the side of my life lived in a wheelchair. They’re still drastically unbalanced sides, 21 years walking to a measly six years wheeling but still, that smaller side is growing. It’s like a slow dripping leak into a bucket — a drop here and a drop there doesn’t seem as though it amounts to much so you stop paying attention. Yet suddenly, as if by some dark magic, the bucket is overflowing and making its presence well known to anyone nearby.

Injury anniversaries mean different things to different people, and I’ve been surprised to notice how the meaning of my particular anniversary has changed in my own mind as the years continue to pass by. I’m older, although not necessarily wiser. I’ve done different things and latched on to related, but certainly different passions. I’ve asked a lot of questions and found some answers that were quickly replaced by even more questions. Looking from that frame of reference, I guess it isn’t much of a surprise that each year anniversary has a somewhat different vibe.

Right now I’m sitting outside on my patio, looking down 16 floors at the constantly bustling Chicago streets and sidewalks. As a silent observer watching the strangers moving about below, each at their own pace headed towards a unique destination, I can’t help but think about the times when these roles are reversed and I’m the one being observed. Crossing Michigan Avenue. Ordering a drink at Starbucks. Riding in an elevator. Getting out of my car.

At one point in time, that really bothered me — the feeling of always being watched. Yet, after six years, I usually (and finally) don’t notice the “few seconds to long” stares. But when I do, I no longer feel the need to look away or pretend that if I can’t see them, they can’t see me —- and that’s new.

We all go through life with so many different identities. I’m a daughter, I’m a sister, and more recently I’m an aunt. I’m a Christian. I’m an MD PhD student. And I’m a disabled woman.

I’ve known that last identity exists as a part of my “demographic information” for quite some time, but claiming it and being honestly and truthfully willing to claim, it has taken longer than I want to admit (*cough* 6 years *cough*).

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Happy Grapes

I’ve been thinking about this post for awhile. What did I want to say? What combination of words could possibly represent just a few of my unstructured thoughts from the past four months? I know, four months — that was the last time I wrote something to share “publicly.” That long hiatus wasn’t necessarily intentional, but just kind of happened. The seemingly never ending addition of “need to get done NOW” tasks to my to do list had the unsurprising effect of pushing the “I’d like to do that sometime” tasks (like blogging) into the abyss better known as “maybe tomorrow.”

But anyway, here we are. Here I am. So, uh, hi?

These past four months have certainly been a bit, well, unique. I didn’t blog, but I was somewhat consistent with journaling. I just flipped through the pages dated 2019 and to be honest it amazes me how much I’ve experienced / been challenged by / celebrated / completed since the year started. To catch you up on the “big things,” I finished my second year of medical school, closing the chapter on my pre-clinical/didactic medical education. So that means when I return to school, I’ll be in the lab working towards my PhD in immunology for 3.5 – 5 years before returning to the hospital for a year and a half to complete my MD degree.

That also means I just took my first set of board exams, better known as Step 1.

Entering medical school with such a circuitous route, I’ll be the first to admit my knowledge of “boards” was ultimately nonexistent. I knew that you had to pass tests to prove your knowledge and be licensed, but beyond that, I considered the whole thing to be a problem for future Sam. Funny thing about the future, it does eventually become the present. The last official day of lecture at the beginning of March felt a bit like an out of body experience, realizing how much I knew now compared to my first day of class and recognizing how much I still needed to figure out before my 8-hour exam in April.

Between the end of classes and your exam date you enter into a period of time referred to as “dedicated.” You have no classes to go to, no external commitments besides the ones you make yourself, and are literally dedicated to studying for the exam. Eight, ten, twelve hour days of flashcards, practice questions, board review videos, and whatever other resources you decide to use to try and learn the mountain of knowledge that we currently claim to be truth.

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Ingrid was super helpful (*rolls eyes*) with studying…

I don’t know if there’s any way to truly describe what the experience of dedicated is like, or I guess, more specifically what my experience of dedicated was like.

There’s something profoundly awesome about that feeling when you finally start to put the pieces together. We learn about the various organ systems in somewhat disparate sections referred to as modules, but obviously that’s not how the body operates. A concept introduced to me way back in December 2018 finally making sense when I could fit it under a larger umbrella that was given to me in February 2019. At the same time, it can also be humbling if not a tad humiliating as you answer question after question wrong on a topic you were once convinced you understood. Continue reading

Stalled

Word of warning: This is a tad different than my “usual” post. But than again,  I guess that’s the cool thing about a blog. It can be whatever I want it to be. This happens to be more of a “day in the life” kind of post. A bit more of a what-is-it-REALLY-like-to-be-you kind of writing. So, here goes 😀

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“And that about wrap’s up this lecture. Why don’t we take a little break and start back up at 10.”

Perfect, that should be just enough time for a bathroom break. I back my wheelchair out from my front row spot – the only place I can sit in the lecture hall – and roll out into the hallway. I brace my footplate against the bathroom door and with a swift press of the handle and a bit of rapid finesse to get my chair moving, the door opens with ease and I’m inside.

I choose this particular hospital bathroom for a few well-thought out reasons. First, its close proximity to the lecture hall where I hear the majority of lecturers teach their part of the second-year medical student curriculum. My “process” for performing this seemingly simple and vital bodily function takes a bit longer than it used to, so cutting out any unnecessary travel time is imperative.

Second, it’s size. It’s a six-stall bathroom, one of which my wheelchair and I are grateful we can use. Lecture breaks are for the entire class and I certainly don’t want to take up a stall in a location where there aren’t many extras to go around. Just inside the door, I check my watch.

9:52am.

I round the corner and let out a breath, simultaneously reminding myself to relax and stay calm. Five empty stalls, doors wide open – a clear invitation for entry. One stall, closed for business. It’s the only stall I can use.

My class is in a hospital building, plenty of patients with disabilities are seen here on a daily basis. I have no issue waiting while one of my disabled-peers performs their own “process.” After all, everyone has to wait in a public restroom once in a while.

There’s a rustle of a coat or some other form of clothing. Oh good, they’re almost done. And I see two high heeled shoes walk across the stall under the door. 

Breathe, I remind myself. Maybe they have another reason to use the only accessible stall in this bathroom when all the other stalls are vacant.

I have a relatively new opinion of and relationship with bathrooms, of both the public and private variety. Having had a spinal cord injury resulting in paralysis in 2013 and now identifying as a paraplegic, simply going to the bathroom is no longer simple. I don’t even want to admit the amount of time I spend thinking about or planning when and where I will go on a daily basis. Plus, it just takes longer.

9:54am

A friend from class walks in, looks at me and shakes her head, a mutual acknowledgement of how frequently this happens and how unnecessary it is. She walks into one of those five empty stalls and closes the door. Continue reading

Simple Questions

Why does Friday take so long to arrive, but Monday is just around the corner?
Why are the most beautiful colors of fall actually a physical depiction of ending?
Why do the hardest struggles result in the greatest personal growth and deepest introspection?

Why is it that the simplest questions, are the hardest to answer?

It has been a pretty crazy last two months — I guess that’s to be expected since the last time I made an appearance here was at the start of August. That wasn’t actually a long time ago, but in so many ways, it kind of feels like a lifetime.

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  • I’ve taken 5 exams — 2 anatomy lab practicals and 3 much longer (neurology-related) exams of the multiple choice variety
  • I’ve raced a half marathon — the fall Chicago Half Marathon at the end of September
  • I’ve moved out of my first ever “big kid” apartment
  • I’ve moved into my first ever “holy-crap-I-bought-this” condo
  • I have a car (my hand-control adapted car) in Chicago that I can use to drive where I want, when I want, including making a surprise visit home after the Psychiatry exam last weekend.

Yea, just a couple highlights of the past two months (with some pictures to go with). I think there’s so much I could say about each one of those experiences that I don’t really feel the need to say anything. I guess that doesn’t make much (if any) sense, but sometimes “making sense” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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I love where I’m at — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I adore my new place and the fact I now have a bedroom and a patio. I’ve survived what most consider to be the hardest modules of medical school and am starting quite a few activities (classes, co-curriculars, etc) that I’m truly excited and passionate about. It’s a great place to be and it’s a place I intend to cherish and embrace. I guess that place I’m referring to is more related to where my head is than my physical person.

The last two months have been really challenging. Don’t worry, nothing crazy has happened. My family is doing well. My health is as good as it always is. I’m financially stable and still surrounded by so many great friends, colleagues, and mentors in the Chicagoland area. Yet, the day to day grind of life that never seems to stop, information you need to learn, assignments you need to complete, random to-do list items that won’t do themselves — was draining. I was exhausted. Stressed. Burnt-out.

It’s embarrassing to admit that. To recognize that I can’t always “do it all,” that I’m not some infallible being, that I have a limit to what I can manage, and I found where that limit lives.  We talk about wellness and taking care of ourselves in med school all the time. I think I was listening to all those conversations, but I don’t think I was really listening.  I don’t think I was processing through the obvious knowledge that the things we hear about in our lectures and see in our “medical life” can impact you in unexpected ways. Psychiatry was definitely a module of surprise and (slow) realization. Continue reading

Let’s Face It

August 4th is technically still summer in Chicago, but my reality says summer ended on Monday. Ooft, that sounded a tad depressing. What I’m trying to say is that med school classes started again and I have officially returned to campus as an M2. Gone are the days of wandering along the lakeshore and reading romance novels  (8 books in July, although I promise some were non-fiction — I lead an odd life for a women in her mid/almost late 20’s) and I’m now back to the grind of powerpoint slides, ridiculous numbers of flashcards, and a substantial increase in my daily caffeine intake.

Yea, I guess the explanation didn’t really help to make things sound less melancholy, but in all honesty, I was ready to go back. Well, on Monday I was ready to go back…now, well…  I’m just kidding (mostly). It’s nice to get back into the routine of lectures, clinic, and extracurriculars. It’s exciting to be introduced to all of this new information (although a little less exciting to realize how soon my first exam is). It’s great to reconnect with friends and classmates and hear some of the amazing stories and experiences that filled their summers. In summary: Life is good and I’m already exhausted. I’m so glad I like coffee.

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This year, things are a tad different. First off, I’m way less clueless about what I’m getting myself into and am about to experience. I know what’s expected of me and (generally) how to achieve it. In some ways it’s nice to be a second year student; but it’s also a bit more intimidating since there’s a whole class of 140+ first year students who think you know things (which may or may not be accurate). This year is also a little different in the way our curriculum is structured compared to prior years, in that our first organ system module is “Head and Neck. A two and a half week block where you’re supposed to figure out and understand the muscles/vasculature/nerves of the face and neck, the physiology and pathophysiology of the eyes and ears, and then a bunch of random odds and ends that could be considered neurology but you need to know to understand everything else. Putting it mildly, it’s intense. Needless to say, I spent a good portion of today silently envying Ingrid’s to do list.

Yet, I think the intensity of this module is about more than just the sheer amount of information coming at us on a daily basis. After all, I’m relatively used to that… it’s always a little different since the topics themselves change, but all in all, I expect feeling constantly behind and invariably busy. That’s a type of intensity that’s assumed. I think the challenging part of this module in particular is the actual subject matter, or maybe it’s the process by which we, as med students, learn it.  Continue reading

How a-MUSE-ing

Summer is awesome. Period.

I don’t think that’s a statement that would shock very many people, but I feel as though it needed to be said. I also think there’s something about this summer, specifically, that makes it even more awesome. Perhaps it’s the sharp contrast between school year responsibilities and summer obligations. Maybe it’s the realization this summer is in essence, my last (most likely, ever) “between school years” summer. Then again, it could be that I now find myself in this remarkable position of living in a bustling city I’ve come to know and love with a close community of peers (who have become treasured friends) only a text and short walk away.

It’s awfully exciting to say the least, although I guess I should clarify that I am actually doing something this summer and not just spending it on the patio reading various books (although that tends to be my typical weekend activity). My day-to-day is usually spent at school in lab where I’m in the process of deciding exactly which lab I’d like to join for pursuing my PhD. I’m really loving it and am becoming increasingly enraptured by the science I’ve been able to learn and experience. I’m likewise pretty thrilled by my ability (at this stage in the game) to leave lab at a relatively “normal” time and actually leave lab – meaning I don’t have to go home and study for hours on end.

Screen Shot 2018-07-04 at 10.06.03 AMSo where does that leave me? Well, it leaves me with a lot more free time than I’m used to having. Relatedly, it also leaves me with a greater appreciation for said free time. Time to explore various neighborhoods. Time to attend a small share of the countless live music fests that happen throughout the summer here in Chicago. Time to drink a beer on the patio with a close friend or group of friends. Time to stop, reflect, and muse.

Muse. I’ve been doing a lot more of that recently. You know, that unique type of calm and contemplative thinking that only happens in the arena of an untroubled and easygoing existence. That type of thinking where you aren’t really trying to answer a particular question and have little (if any) interest in reaching some extensive and esoteric conclusion. Instead, you’re just thinking, well, I guess you’re musing — about life, about experiences, about the way things are, and about the way things aren’t. Continue reading

Milestones

Milestones — we all have them. Graduating from high school. Buying a first car. Maybe getting married. All those little things that mark “progress” through life. Today marks a unique milestone in my life, one of those milestones I imagined reaching at some far off point in the future, but not necessarily believing it really would happen. Today marks my 5 year anniversary of living life as a paraplegic post-spinal cord injury.

5 years.

I’m not exactly sure what it is about that length of time, but it carries more weight than any of the past yearly post-injury anniversaries. I was google-ing 5th wedding anniversaries and it seems as though that’s the year where you seem to transition from newly weds to “you-should-have-this-kind-of-figured-out” weds. Also learned during that google-ing session: you know how there is a particular item/material associated with every anniversary year? Silk, crystal, china, pearl — all that kind of stuff? Well, guess what year 5 is…. Wood. It’s wood. Boy did that give me a chuckle. Oh the irony, but back to my point.

Five years is one of those imaginary but very real “line in the sand” kind of time frames. It’s a length of time that carries with it certain expectations, expectations about what you should be able to do, what you should know, how you should carry yourself, how “moved on” you should be. Five years means when someone asks you when your injury was or what your story is, you can’t say “Oh, I haven’t been in my chair for very long” because actually, you have.

60 months.

It’s a surprisingly long period of time, and yet it has gone by rather quickly. Well, I guess looking back it feels like it went by quickly,  but there were definitely months where that wasn’t the case. A flip through the journal I kept as I processed through so much loss in the early stages of my injury is pretty sobering…

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“Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. I hurt so much, and in ways I never thought possible. I can’t wrap my mind around what I’m going through, and I don’t even know where to start. “

Even though those thoughts were written so long ago, I remember the fear, the anger, the stress, the utter exhaustion that accompanied each and every pencil stroke.

“I pray for God to give me strength, to help me work through all of this, but sometimes I don’t know where He is. I don’t know where to go for comfort.” Continue reading