Marcus Taylor, DPT
For us, the beginning of third year was during times of variability and uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic was projecting to spike in cases again as the summer months were approaching; which allowed for different experiences depending on your setting population, specialty, clinic rules, etc. Due to the pandemic, my class was forced to complete the last year of our didactic coursework within a hybrid model – meaning that our musculoskeletal, neuro, pediatrics, and all elective classes were majority online. I doubt that I’d be overstepping by stating that the majority of my classmates were feeling anxiety and worry going into our first clinical rotation. Along with this worry, let’s go ahead and combine that with the social and political unrest still happening across the world, a new COVID variant looming, and vaccine hesitancy, among other individual issues that combine to create the trauma fatigue that we are all experiencing on our own level.
I’ve been reading this book (by ‘reading’ I mean that I’m two chapters in) called Why Don’t Zebras Get Ulcers by a biologist named, Robert Sapolsky. In this book, Sapolsky compares different animals and how their stress response is different from humans plus the effects on the body. He states that a zebra’s stress is more acute in nature – ie. “If I don’t outrun this lion, I will die.” But as soon as it outruns the lion, the stress levels decrease and return back to baseline. However, a human’s stress can be acute, but we also carry chronic stressors – ie. the decision to feed my family or pay the electricity bill. Only after a decision is made, the stressor remains. Later in the book, I’m assuming Sapolsky will address (again, two chapters in lol) that these chronic stressors lead to an increased risk of disease and disability.
I say all this to tie back in an earlier point that I made about ‘trauma fatigue.’ In the third year, my classmates and I were challenged clinically and academically as we began preparing for our NPTE exam. As individual feats, these are chronic stressors that can truly break you; and I believe that the only way I was able to get through this year was through my support system. Regardless of what was going on, I needed to lean on my people to bolster me when I felt particularly burned out and depressed. I will be the first to tell you how difficult it is to move to a new location every three months and attempt to maintain some sort of schedule. Unless you placed into a rotation that covered two sessions, then this could very well be a reality that you experience.
For the current or future students reading this, my plan for outlining my experience is not to scare anyone away from the stressors that come with third year. I hope this encourages you to embrace the unknowns before you. All of the anxious and worried classmates that I mentioned earlier all earned the title of “Doctor” that will forever come before their names. Clearly, it’s possible and you’ll get through it, too! But if you take nothing away from my experience, I hope that I’ve been able to adequately relay the importance of having a support system, and taking care of your mental, physical, and spiritual health.
By the end of the third year, you will realize that it was all worth it – the long nights of studying, the long days of clinic, the less than one-hour lunch breaks have all paid off. You will have achieved your goal and you would have become what you’ve said that you will. But what is it all worth if you’ve only set yourself up to re-enter the rat race of the working world with an underdeveloped system for coping with chronic stress?