Emily Arthurs: Five year survival

Emily ArthursHaving gone through a tough five years, following on from a previous four year science degree, I was all set to finally finish being a student. With nine years of study under my belt I was ready to step outside the university and into the real world. My FY1 placement was organised; I had my accommodation arranged, my finances sorted, my bags (almost) packed and plans made for the oncoming year. “All” I had to do was pass the clinical finals. Unfortunately life does not always go to plan.

I had consistently been a hard worker, never needing to re-sit an exam in my life. So I can truthfully say that the results in June 2010 came as a big shock. I failed my finals. This was a catastrophe, a disaster, a tragedy, and very embarrassing. How did this happen? How did I let this happen? Thinking back, the reasons for my failure are becoming more apparent. Stress, stress, and more stress. Stressed about everything; my studies, my relationships, myself. I had allowed it to take over. The person who started medicine was confident, energetic, and happy. That person five years on was deflated, worn out, insecure, and shattered. I recall my very first day of medical school. One hundred and eighty of us sitting there with high expectations, we were excited for the years ahead. Pleased and relieved at having been accepted was enough. We felt proud and good about ourselves. The dean of medicine welcomed us in congratulating us for getting this far. The dean spoke about our future and the years awaiting us, “Medical students are not necessarily better, but you are definitely different.” At first I enjoyed the new status of being a “medic.” However, this gloss soon became dulled. Many students find medical school tough. It is. There are the long hours, the never ending lectures, clinics, wards, and study. The feelings that one does not know enough, and will never know enough. The continual doubts about one’s abilities — am I bright enough, am I capable? The competition among fellow classmates is an additional issue; to be the best, to know the most, to outshine one another.

Being apart from other university students takes its toll too. Different holidays and a different location, we are often in a “medical bubble,” removed from the rest of civilisation. Relentlessly talking and thinking about disease, clinical signs, investigations, treatments, outcomes, and that “five year survival” rate. What about our five year survival? I struggled through, attempting to tell myself things would get better. Unfortunately, at the end of those five years and a particularly difficult final year, I managed to just fall short at the final hurdle. I failed my finals.

So the exams came, they went, and the results were released. I cried, I fumed, I almost gave up, and then I decided to pick myself up and get on with my life. And I am still managing to get on with my life, and it is and will be a good life. I have taken the extra time during the summer as an opportunity to gather myself. I went on a holiday, started a new hobby, and reconnected with friends. I brought myself back to the beginning, to remember the girl who had sat and listened to the dean that first hopeful day five years ago. I discovered what it was like to laugh and let loose once more. The support from family and friends was enormous. I now realise who is there for me, regrettably something I may have forgotten in the past.

So what now? Well, I will be re-sitting my final year and, while this is not ideal, I feel surprisingly positive about it. I have faced my failure and am now facing the year with a new sense of opportunity. I will meet new people, take up new hobbies, practise more skills, and get some help. I feel more capable and prepared to do those exams, and I am more relaxed about becoming a doctor. Only a few months ago to fail felt like the worst thing in the world. I could not see how life would go on. But life does continue, and sometimes for the better. I was not ready to be any kind of doctor. If I had managed to get through those clinical exams I firmly believe I would have derailed at another point. Now I am back on track. Only one year to go before the big wide world receives me, and this time I am determined to make it out the other side of medical school in one piece.

  • mary

    I loved this piece. It is very well written. I like that I get a real sense of this young woman, her confidence, her crash and now her re-emergence as a more grounded person, having had some of the stuffing knocked out of her and coming through it all stronger, more determined and ready to take on the mantle of the doctor. I do wish her well.

  • Ronald McCoy

    I had a similar experience, but life does go on, and it's really good. In my case, I failed a clinical medicine long case, along with ten others. In this case, it was, I think, a grumpy examiner as I passed the resit with no problems. Howeverl that high that everyone else was celebrating was so far removed from my 'low', that I was devastated for a couple of days, especially as the subject was by far my best subject, and I couldn't understand why. When I had some tutoring help for the make up exam, the registrar said he didn't understand why I failed. So sometimes it happens, but you'll get there like I did.

    Dr Ronald McCoy
    Adjunct Clinical Lecturer Univeristy of Sydney
    Senior Medical Educator, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners

  • Merys Jones

    Sometimes you have pick yourself up and try again. I bawled my eyes out when I failed my first driving test – convinced that I had done everything right and then blaming the examiner for being unjust.

    I'm terrified of failing my final year – of making my 9 years so far into a decade. I'm scared of upsetting my family and not being able to financially cope – but what you have said makes perfect sense and helps to take things in perspective.

    Best of luck with the resits.

  • first of all, its great that you shared such a topic with the students. its really brave and inspiring.

    i have seen my best friend studying all the five years and going on to not making it in the finals and it was a tradegy for everyone involved. it requires guts to just go back and sit with your juniors and having to face our seniors and professors all over again, having to answer them what went wrong and it goes on..it needs some serious discipline and dont-cry-again talk. its a long road but if it ends in the degree no matter how hard it is it'll make you happy in the end.

    All the best for your future.

  • Sandra Long

    Well done for writing this, it can't be easy to expose yourself and this difficult experience you went through to the outside world. This bravery will stand to you as a doctor.

    Best wishes for the coming year and your future career,


    Registrar, Leeds

  • Kevin

    Thank you for sharing this. I wish you good luck in the coming osces.