Experiencing Loss during Medical School

This article was a joint effort with Frontline contributing author Sarah Norman. Below are each of our own personal experiences that outline the hardships of handling loss during medical school. We share this not for sympathy or pity, but to let our fellow students, and all our family and friends, know that they are not alone in their experiences.

Sarah Powell:

*Names have been removed for privacy.*

After my first semester on the island, doing long distance with my then boyfriend, we decided that it was better for him to move to the island with me. We figured it would be good for our relationship as well as a great support system for me as a student. It’s very difficult for spouses/SOs to get employment on the island. Since local unemployment is so high, work visas are hard to come by, and most people resort to cash jobs. Since he wasn’t working, my boyfriend became very depressed, and after five months, we decided together that he should return home to the states to go back to work. Again, this was a decision we made together, and we had no problems in our relationship other than the typical small things… or so I thought.

When he returned home, the last text I received was that he had arrived at the airport in New Orleans, about an hour from our hometown. The plan was for him to be picked up by a friend, whom I did not know, and to be out of touch for a few days before returning home. I didn’t think anything of it until several days had passed, and after about a week of no contact with either me or his mom, I decided to file a missing person’s report with the police local to the airport. His mom was not very involved, so it fell to me to contact the detective via phone and email on a multi-daily basis. Facebook, friends, family, any and all contacts. It was all on me. 

The hardest part was once I had posted his missing person’s flyer, it became public knowledge both at home and at school what I was going through. I am very extroverted, a hugger, and I love all people, but having that become the topic of every conversation I had, of every minimal encounter, even with people I had never met, took its toll. People from home whom I hadn’t spoken to since high school reached out in blatant attempts to “get the scoop,” under the guise of “checking on me.” While my family and friends formed an amazing support system, I felt like I was living in a fish bowl.

Six. Weeks. Later… He texted me to break up with me. He had no idea that the police had become involved in looking for him and refused to contact them or his own mother. I reported that he had contacted me and that I would no longer be involved in the case. Seems simple enough, but without explicit proof that he was the one who texted me, his case was never closed. About six weeks ago, a year after the initial report was filed, a police officer showed up at my door to ask if he had ever turned up. You think you’re over it and then “BAM!” there it is again. 

I convinced myself at the time that I had come to terms with the loss during the six weeks of the investigation. I “moved on,” even dated, but inevitably became depressed, my grades had floundered during the investigation, but became even worse in the semester following the breakup. This resulted in several failures and my having to appeal for reinstatement at the university. Thankfully, AUC administration had been aware of the circumstances from the beginning. I had a strong case and prepared obsessively to present to the committee. They were very understanding and granted my reinstatement. 

While my situation may seem unique, it is not the only form of loss. I am certainly not the only one that suffered loss while on an island far from home and family. I will say that the true reason I survived, both during the crisis and following my appeal, was AUC Wellness Counseling. AUC has several therapists on full-time staff and a visiting psychologist. I have met each of them on several occasions, but my personal counseling sessions were a godsend. We always say that AUC is family, and it may seem cheesy, but truly every member of admin, staff, and the students are rooting for you. You may not always like every member of your family, but they’re still family. 

Above all, remember how you impact others and the example you set as a future-physician. Everyone is going through something, whether it is public knowledge or not. Be there for them, but also give them the opportunity to accept your help without smothering them. 

Sarah Norman:

As the month of August is coming to a close, the year 2020 seems to have a never ending well of undesirable surprises.  We began the year with the Australian wildfires, by March the COVID-19 pandemic proved detrimental on a global scale, and once June followed we had horrific social injustices occurring throughout the U.S. While the United States (and quite frankly, the entire world) has been torn into a state of agony by these events, there are students all over the world attempting medical school online. Online schooling has consistently demonstrated its own quirks and difficulties, but in addition to a nonexistent social life due to the pandemic, and the gut-wrenching social issues and politics that fill our tv screens, it’s almost impossible to manage all these different facets of life.

I personally narrowed my focus in on school as best as I could, but the outside world was always a news notification or facebook post away. Right after second block exams, I was told by my mother that my 83-year-old grandmother had contracted the coronavirus at her senior living facility. 

My world completely stopped turning. The metaphorical wheel I was on abruptly halted.

Let me rewind. My grandma was a very special person in my life: a confidante, a shoulder to lean on, and a phenomenal listener. She was a very independent woman, a nurse for the state and a single mother of three children. She was ambitious, motivated, and determined to balance her work, social, and private life, and she did so successfully. She is one of my biggest inspirations, second only to my own mother, and widely contributed to my dream and confidence to pursue medical school. 

As a young child, I never had a babysitter, it was always my grandma. She quickly became a constant in my life at an early age, and I couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t in my corner. When push came to shove, she was someone I could call and spill my guts to. She knew when to listen, when to offer advice, and always called to check in after our heavier conversations. I now realize how fortunate I was to have someone like her in my life during the twists and turns of adolescent life. As my impending years of adulthood unfolded before me, my grandma’s health slowly began to decline and she was unable to maintain her driver’s license status. As I had mentioned before, my grandma was independent (stubbornly, almost to a fault) and insisted that she move into an independent living facility so she could maintain some semblance of independence even with the loss of her driving abilities. 

Fast forward to 2020, my family had not been able to see her since March due to all of the pandemic regulations, and now the place we thought would be the most safe for her proved to be the most deadly. COVID-19 was running rampant in her senior living facility, and my grandma had fallen victim. She was quickly transferred to the nearest hospital where she was given oxygen to help her breathing and coronavirus plasma therapy. 

It was a rollercoaster from there. One day she would seem to be doing better, and the next day she would be on 14L of oxygen and not eating. Thankfully the nurses on her floor volunteered to FaceTime us so we could physically see her. It was only a few days later that my grandma would take a turn for the worst and was ordered hospice care.

My mom and I went to visit my grandma as soon as she was admitted to hospice, because despite the fact that she was positive for COVID-19, we were allowed to see her. 

I’ll never forget walking into the room with my mother in full hazmat suit attire and seeing my grandma laying still in the hospital bed on a morphine drip. My stomach felt as if it dropped to my toes and tears fogged my face shield. We stayed for hours by her bedside holding her hands and reminiscing old, fond memories. It is said that hearing is the last sense to be lost, and I know that my grandma heard everything we said that day. Although she hadn’t spoken a word, when my mother and I went to leave, I told her that we loved her and she mustered up a “I love you too.” My heart fluttered as we were ushered out by the floor nurse, and I turned to look at my grandma one last time.

COVID-19 has not only stolen time and changed the regime of everyday life for people around the world, but it has taken countless people and has ripped apart families. My schoolwork fell to the wayside for a few weeks as I mourned (privately and with my family) and attended the memorial service. I truly believe my grandma is my guardian angel, because somehow I passed my block 3 exams and finals in spite of taking a few weeks away from school.

As I am still feeling my grandma’s passing in waves, I am reminded of a very essential life lesson: medical school is incredibly important, but it is not more important than family, friends and mental health. I am eternally grateful for the countless AUC peers that reached out to check in upon hearing of the passing of my grandma. Losing someone so important to me during my first semester of medical school from this awful pandemic has been extremely difficult for me to overcome, but I never have felt alone in my grieving. 

AUC Wellness Counseling consists of wonderfully trained therapists that specialize in aiding the woes medical students encounter, while also assisting the plethora of events that may occur in social and private lives of students. If you or someone you know needs help, please contact:

Sint Maarten:

Dean of Student Affairs, Dr. Scott Rinker at srinker@aucmed.edu

Dean of Academic Affairs, Dr. Mary Lucero at mlucero@aucmed.edu

AUC Wellness Counseling at sxmwellness@aucmed.edu

UK Track:

Dean of Academic Affairs, Dr. Andy Ginty at aginty@sucmed.edu

US Clinicals:

Dean of Student Affairs, Dr. Kimberly Kirkland at kkirkland@aucmed.edu

Clinical Student Wellness Counselor, Melanie Chenette at mchenette@aucmed.edu

UK Clinicals:

Clinical Dean, Dr. Stephen Ash at sash@aucmed.edu

Clinical Student Wellness Counselor, Melanie Chenette at mchenette@aucmed.edu

US National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255

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