WhiteCoatWednesday: “It’s Only Failure If You Don’t Learn Anything From It”

(photo credit: https://www.instagram.com/fitz_jr4)

College is hard enough, but when you talk about medical school–that’s a whole different story. I remember getting a low grade on one my first exams during my freshman year in college, but that was undergrad, so I thought I was going to be okay.

Take a look at future pediatric anesthesiologist, Fitz Tavernier Jr. He is in his third year as a medical student at the University of Michigan. In his own words to Michigan State, he explains how he turned his nearly horrific first text score into his jumping point for success in med school.

It was the fall of 2010. My first semester as a first year at the University of Michigan. I was pre-med and beyond determined to achieve a fruitful career as a physician. My first undergraduate exam ever was none other than Introductory Chemistry, one of many so-called “weeder classes” on the journey to medical school.

I was confident. I studied day and night, night and day in nervous preparation for what anguish college-level science exams could bring. Especially when your grade is determined only by your performance on few exams.

A week or so later the scores came out. 45%. Yes, you read correctly, 45%. (Almost seven years later, I’ve since taken countless exams and that’s the only score I vividly remember.) Failure didn’t even begin to describe how I felt about my performance. I felt incompetent. We all have mishaps and I’ve scored poorly on past tests, but I never failed anything that badly, especially something that I put considerable time and effort into. I was distraught, but ironically not at the score itself but what that score might imply. It was as if that exam was the fork in the road and the score was supposed to be a sign for me to take the path away from medicine and towards a plan B that I didn’t have. I questioned my ability to endure the ‘pre-med life’ and thus my potential at achieving my lifelong goal of becoming a doctor. If I couldn’t get through introductory chemistry then how on earth could I make it through the rest of the science classes?

Something such as failing one general chemistry exam seems so minuscule, doesn’t it? It was just one exam. I was probably overreacting, right? Wrong. A story such as mine is not uncommon.

Attrition rates for STEM students are high across the board, regardless of race or ethnicity. The journey to medicine is a long, grueling process and that’s the truth. There will be students who do not make it. It takes passion and endurance beyond measuring, but there is this stigma among undergraduate pre-meds that you have to be perfect academically from the moment you leave your mother’s womb. Sure, the medical field, from students to physicians, comprises some of the most brilliant individuals with remarkable intellect, but that doesn’t exempt us from failure, especially academic failure. Medicine as we know it would cease to exist if our predecessors did not fail. Failure in science is frequent and inevitable.

Pre-med students get discouraged early on from general pre-med classes and from their academic failures. This is nothing new. All it takes is one failure, especially at the start of your first year to feel incompetent. There is this false reality regarding individuals who successfully make it in medicine, especially within minority communities. Students such as myself who have successfully endured the journey of making it into medical school can have their fair share of failures.