The Sick Taking Care of the Sick

If you knew all the ways that your body interacts with the world and with medications, would that make you take better care of it?

As a medical student, we take many different classes about health and how our body acts under different types of stresses. We know the effects of several diseases, many diets, and how much of an effect exercise has on improving overall health. We’re always paying sharp attention to our patient’s habits and attitudes to detect what lifelong stress has led to their current illness or most recent accident. Us students and the professionals we intend to emulate are masters at determining the causes of someone else’s illness and death.

Our health choices for ourselves, however, would often surprise you. We still end up going to McDonalds more often than we should or let our exercise schedule turn into a marathon of sitting and studying, studying, studying. We eat more cookies and make excuses for our health choices more often than you would believe your doctors would. I have seen medical students down more than one Monster Energy drink a day and met one student who would drink odd teas that kept him up for several hours and left him shaking after every exam. We may know how improper diet and exercise affects the body, but that does not mean we take our own advice.

Is this because we believe ourselves to be as invincible as most young people often do? While I can only vouch for myself, it wouldn’t surprise me if there weren’t at least a few medical students among my class who believe themselves to be far away from the deleterious effects that their current actions, for long periods of time, will take. We certainly act as if we are at times with how we choose to push our bodies and force feed our brains every fact or concept of DNA synthesis that we need to learn.

Or does this have more to do with what we deem most important? I know that for myself, I often find myself wondering if it would be better that I study for a few more hours or that I go to the gym like I told myself I would. As easily as I start an exercise routine, I can end it and let days (or even a week) pass in which I do nothing for my body, even though exercise has been proven to improve memory and cognitive function. This is to say nothing of how much easier it is to eat out rather than prepare our own meals, especially given how limited our time already is. So, if we do not take care of our bodies now, when will we?

Will we take care of our bodies once we’ve graduated medical school and have gone on to 80 hour a week residencies? Will it be when we’ve graduated from our residencies and have opened our own practices or gone on to a new fellowship? Will it be when we’ve started our own families and are seasoned physicians, meeting patients who reflect the decisions that we choose today?

I once heard a statistic that, on average, if someone is told that they will die if they do not change their habits now, only 10% of the general population will change for the better. How much harder is it to change a habit if we have 5, 10, or 30 years reinforcing the habits we have today? We have more motivation than most people to change, but I wonder then how much motivation we will need to become the models of health that we strive to be for our patients.   This is not to say that we don’t have difficult schedules or that we shouldn’t focus on our studies, but I hope that it won’t take heart disease or cancer to remind me that my knowledge of medicine does not make me any less mortal than the patients I’ll serve.