I’ve been asked many times ‘Did you always want to be a doctor?’ The honest answer is no – in fact, it has been a journey, full of highs and lows, and one which I’m very content with the direction of right now. As I moved through my school years and the time came to decide on a career route, I found myself trying to figure out which path would allow me to best combine a love of science and a love of helping and working with people. There were many options – medicine, nutrition and dietetics, physiotherapy, and psychology. All sounded fascinating, but in fact, it took a really inspiring pep talk to convince me that actually, I DID have the potential to become a doctor. I didn’t believe in myself enough to pursue medicine prior to that.
And so, I went for it. I got the exam results I needed and more to get into undergraduate medical training in Dublin – but there was a catch. A new aptitude test had been rolled out that year for aspiring doctors, and your score from that test was combined with your school exam results for your application. It turned out that I was short by two points and so I got my second-choice college course, which was nutrition and dietetics. I think, with hindsight, that was my first big setback I encountered on my journey as a doctor, and I’m actually very grateful for it. My disappointment showed me how badly I DID want to be a doctor and motivated me to try again. I spent a year training in nutrition and dietetics, absolutely loved it, learnt a huge amount, had a lot of fun and made many friends. I repeated the dreaded aptitude test, worked my butt off practising past exams, and beat my past score by a LOT of percentage points. This time around, I was exactly two points OVER what I needed to get into undergraduate medical training at my dream university. And so, my journey to become a doctor began. The first life lesson this part of the journey taught me is this – Get Out Of Your Own Way. Don’t hold YOURSELF back. If you want to get somewhere in life, break down how you do that into small, achievable steps you can take, one at a time. If you need more knowledge and skills to get there, figure out how to learn them. If you need help to get there, ask for it. If you need self-belief to get there, work on that every day. Never, ever, stand in your own way.
In Ireland, you train for 5 to 6 years at university to become a doctor (my university was 5 years). I loved every moment. Was it a rocky road? Absolutely. Whenever you tell someone you’re studying medicine, their reaction is invariably some form of ‘Oh gosh, that must be so hard/tiring/unsociable/intense!’ And you know what? It is. Why wouldn’t it be? We learn in 5 years the basics of essentially everything that can go wrong in the human body (for adults AND children, remember) – and what we can do as doctors to fix it. It was a crazy five years, full of highs, lows, and some of the best memories and moments of my life so far. At the end of my final year, I graduated from college joint first in my class, and received a Gold Medal for my exam results. I cried. I’ve always said what has gotten me to where I am in life is hard, hard work – not a genius brain. It’s been a focus on progress, not perfection – and that is my second life lesson this journey has taught me. Medical training is a long road and can seem overwhelming whether you’re in first year facing anatomy and biochemistry exams, or in your clinical finals facing two examiners waiting for you to produce a diagnosis and management plan for the patient in front of you. No one is perfect, and that includes doctors. Progress, not perfection.
My third life lesson on this journey came from two years I spent as a Senior House Officer (what you become in Ireland after doing your ‘intern’ year), working in hospital medicine and changing into different medical specialties every 3 months. It was two years of fast paced, constantly evolving work roles and responsibilities, feeling almost ALWAYS out of my comfort zone (albeit with support some of the time), and ultimately, becoming a better doctor every day. I studied HARD at college, but there is only so much you can learn before you need to get onto the hospital wards and learn by doing and gain wisdom through experience. Particularly challenging specialties I moved through were Oncology and Emergency Medicine, and during that time, I learnt to tell myself ‘You’ve got this.’ Whenever I found myself facing a particularly challenging patient case, or felt I was out of my depth, or just needed a hug. This year, I heard a phrase that put this better in words and is my third life lesson. When faced with big, scary challenges, remember this – You can do hard things. Say it, twice, three, four times, however many times you need. When your mind says ‘Oh no, what if I fail/can’t…’, hear that thought, and reply ‘Yes, I hear you, but remember, you can do hard things.’ It’s simple, but so so empowering. Try it for yourself, trust me.
When you start working as a doctor, and gaining experience, the next question everyone asks is ‘So, what do you want to specialise in?’ They want to know – will you be a surgeon? A cardiologist? Gastroenterologist? General practitioner? Obstetrician? Paediatrician? Psychiatrist? There are MANY, many options, and during the last 6 months of my three years of hospital training, I had gained a lot of experience of different medical specialties and loved every moment. But I was still unsure. Had I found an area I was REALLY passionate about, that I wanted to commit a further 5 years of training to? No, is the honest answer, and that was a hard thing to own up to. I particularly enjoyed Gastroenterology and Endocrinology, but not quite enough to pursue. This is the point in my journey where my blog (www.theirishbalance.com) came into play. I had started it as a sort of hobby in October 2016, as a recipe hub for friends asking for foodie creations I was sharing on Instagram. But over time, I found myself returning to my interest in nutrition, and other aspects of lifestyle that affect our health – exercise, stress management, sleep hygiene, social well-being. I found I was absolutely fascinated by the concept of prevention in medicine, the upstream approach to disease, identifying root causes and drivers of it, as well as health promotion. Public health was the overall umbrella for this area of medicine, but I didn’t know it at the time – it wasn’t something we covered particularly in my medical training. I began to read, to educate myself on this area, and started using my blog as a platform from which to share simple, sustainable healthy lifestyle tips from the science I was reading, and to share my own journey to ‘balance’ in life as a doctor. Not always easy to achieve, especially on night shifts! Over time, I started to wonder, as the blog and my social media following grew with the content I was sharing, if this prevention aspect of medicine was something I could pursue as a specialty. And so, I found public health.
Which leads me to my fourth life lesson. If you’re unsure and maybe even a little bit scared to pursue your passion or a new route in life, instead of asking ‘Why, and why me?’, ask yourself ‘Why not? Why NOT me?’ You may need to ask it of yourself more than once, but in doing so, you get right to the bottom of those thoughts that might be holding you back. When I realised public health and preventive medicine was what I wanted to pursue, I initially struggled with that being part of my identity as a doctor, even though it felt right to me. That’s because as a speciality it’s less about dealing with individual patients and using your stethoscope day to day, and more about using your cognitive, communication and advocacy skills to focus on the health of the populations you serve – promoting health, protecting it and ultimately, hopefully prolonging good quality life of the public. So although I had to face the ‘Wait, does that mean you’re not a ‘real’ doctor anymore?’ questions when I started to tell people I was pursuing public health, once I got over my own insecurities about it by asking ‘Why not me?’, I was comfortable in my path and specialisation choice. I also asked myself ‘Why not me?’ when deciding whether to start my Podcast recently, and thankfully, asking myself this question proved worthwhile yet again. I started my Podcast nearly one month ago now and couldn’t be more delighted with the feedback it has received, and (I hope!) the value it has brought those tuning in each week.
I choose to continue my journey on this route by applying for a full-time one-year Masters in Public Health and Nutrition in Dublin, to further my education in this area, and build my application for the doctor training scheme in Public Health in Ireland. It was a tough decision, as it has meant leaving the hospital world and day-to-day I knew so well after 3 years in it, to go ‘back to school’ as it were, last September. I questioned myself many times and reflected on the pros and cons of the decision, and the monetary and other personal costs associated with it. I also began to meditate, engage in mindfulness and took up yoga in January 2018 (I’ve always loved exercise, and am a big fan of strength training and long walks with Podcasts – so yoga is like a mindful movement practice for me, and complements my training). Mindfulness and yoga were transformative for me, in terms of allowing me to recognise (and more importantly, listen to) my inner voice last year, which helped me to make my most recent career decision, and be secure in it. So my fifth and final life lesson for you guys is this – never ignore that inner voice. That’s the ‘gut instinct’ everyone talks about – but not everyone listens to. Its your self-talk, we all have it, and you aren’t crazy to hear yours. Work hard at tuning into that voice, and once you hear it, you can recognise whether it’s positive or negative, and whether you’re being kind or cruel to yourself. My golden rule with my self-talk is this – if I wouldn’t say it to my best friend, I definitely won’t be saying it to myself. That’s true for both your personal and career life, remember. Replace ‘I can’t’ with ‘I can.’ It takes time, but it’s a game-changer, trust me.
And this is where I’m currently at on my doctor (and now public health advocate/post-graduate student/podcast host/blogger!) journey. I’m excited to keep taking those small steps along the way, listening to and trusting my inner voice as I go. Staying out of my own way. Knowing I can do hard things. Focusing on progress, not perfection, and asking ‘Why not me?’ when I doubt myself. Many people who follow my blog or my social media have commented on my positive outlook on and energy for life, and hearing that fills me with such a glow. I think a lot of it stems from my desire to be passionate about what I do every day, which is why I work so hard to ensure I’m following that path of what I call ‘my why’. The Japanese call it ‘Ikigai’, or ‘your reason to get up in the morning’ – a loose translation! But now I’ve found my Ikigai, I can’t ever leave it behind. Make it your mission to find yours. And remember – even when it seems like life is full of clouds and no blue sky, there IS always a silver lining. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta peek a little bit closer to see it.
dr. ciara kelly
Ciara Kelly is an Irish girl and qualified medical doctor. She’s passionate about preventive medicine – particularly how our lifestyles affect our health (the food we eat, physical activity, stress management and sleep). She wants to show everyone they can EMPOWER themselves to live happy, healthy lifestyles full of BALANCE.