Op-Ed: My Personal “Struggle:” Welcoming Ramadan as a Clerkship Student
The life of a clerkship student, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, can sometimes be frustrating. Yes, you come to realize what wearing a white coat is all about: patients trust you with information, you learn a new language of “clinical-speak” and start forgetting how to talk to non-healthcare professionals, and you learn so much, at times at expense of your self-esteem. For the first time, though, your schedule no longer belongs to you: you don’t know what time you are to report in the morning until the day before (and sometimes not even then), you don’t know when you will be allowed to leave, and you certainly don’t know if/when you will have time to eat. The life of a clerkship student is harder on the body than the life of a pre-clinical student.
Amidst all this chaos, I will welcome the month of Ramadan starting May 15th. Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims; its importance is signified by the fact that the Muslim scripture, the Quran, was revealed in this month to the Prophet a little over 1400 years ago. We celebrate the grace of this month by personal and financial sacrifice. Muslims all over the world fast from just before the break of dawn to just after sundown, a time period that – depending on one’s geographic location – can last more than 17 hours in the summer months. This fast entails not just refraining from eating and drinking, but also from seeing, doing, and hearing any evil. So no little white lies about why you are running late to a get-together with friends, no reflexive swearing when you stub your toe for the hundredth time on the desk, and certainly no gossiping.
The point of this fast is twofold: to feel closer to God by trying to be a good human being and focusing on spiritual rather than physical needs (i.e. food) and to relate to those who do not have the luxury of being able to eat three meals a day and snack whenever they want. It also helps one relate to patients really well: “NPO since midnight” when the procedure isn’t until 3 p.m. the next afternoon might be easy to write in a note or an order, but difficult to empathize with.
This month is also one of extensive charity: share your food with those around you, and pay the yearly obligatory charity of Zakat, i.e. donate a percentage of your wealth and savings if you are financially able, as a small, concrete step towards helping those who live in a constant state of food and resource deprivation. The end of this month is marked by its very own version of Christmas, called Eid-al-Fitr, with its own little traditions.
The reason I refer to this month as my own personal jihad (“struggle,” in English as translated from Arabic) is not just because I will not be eating and drinking for a good part of the day, and worrying about passing out (again) in the operating room. It is also because I LOVE food, and only while fasting do I realize, I use food as an escape mechanism for everything: when I am bored, when I am procrastinating while studying for my upcoming shelf exam, when I am stressed thinking about *gulp* the upcoming USMLE Step exam, or when I am happy because I suggested a medical intervention for a patient that my attendings appreciated. It will definitely be hard staying away from something I use as a crutch in the face of so many emotions! However, it is also a struggle to improve as a clinician. How many times did I:
- interrupt a patient during pre-rounds since I wanted to report to my resident on time?
- roll my eyes when a patient told me they could not adhere to medications?
- forget to thank my patient’s nurse, when she took the courtesy to show me where the suture removal kit supplies were kept?
- overstep on my fellow medical students’ jurisdiction, just in efforts to impress my attendings during rounds, and not even realize?
- dismiss my peers’ concerns when they told me how stressed they were about the exams?
Ramadan, where I fast with my eyes, my ears, and my tongue, will hopefully be my personal struggle to overcome these shortcomings and much more. One of the lessons of this month is also to extend what you learn to other times of the year!
I invite all of you to join me in examining your own relationship with food, and with those around you, in the coming month of May. Maybe take the next month to appreciate what you eat and avoid spending the time when you nourish your body in front of a screen. Try to be aware of what your hands are doing, and what words you use, if only for five minutes everyday. And reflect on the wonderful opportunities we receive everyday, if only once a week, because we get to be at the forefront of science as physician-scientists. And if you see me in the hallways, definitely take the time to remind me to be mindful and grateful, since I will probably be muttering eponyms and buzzwords under my breath and trying to forget yet another faux pas I committed on rounds that morning on my Medicine clerkship…
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Vanderbilt University.