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Not Solely the Absence of Illness

Every Tuesday, I have the privilege of interviewing patients and get a taste of what it’s like to be a doctor. As a current medical student, health is all I learn about. Our curriculum is built on layers of one’s health: the biochemical pathways, the clinical presentation of disease, and, more importantly, the impact of a disease on a person’s life. The last element is what I spend the majority of my time talking to patients about.

Photo by: Aanika Balaji

One memorable patient story is of a middle-aged woman who was a regular visitor to our general medicine office. She was being seen for a pre-operative appointment. Seven years prior, she was taking the elevator down from her high-rise office job. In the last three floors of the descent the elevator lost the ability to decelerate and basically free-fell until it hit the bottom. Her lower spine was essentially crushed. Since then, she has been on a cocktail of medications that merely reduce the pain and never fully take it away. She has had numerous surgeries to correct her now misshapen spine, but these again only slow the progression.

Limited by the pain, she spends the majority of her time within her home or going to various doctor’s appointments. Her saving grace has been her husband and her friends who come visit, give her support, and let her just talk freely about what she is experiencing. Life may not have turned out exactly how she had planned, but she is still able to find the happiness of each moment.

This patient’s story got me thinking: am I healthy? I work out (although the last five pounds never come off), I cook good food, and like my new community in Baltimore. My health was recently tested when I went through a really rough break-up. I’ll spare you the details and drama, but in the few days following, I felt completely alone. Physically, I was completely fine, but my mind was racing and reeling. I had to go out and rely on my friends (close and far) and family for support. I would call people multiple times, tell them the same things over and over again and they were patient enough to listen to me.

I am walking through the stages of grief:

Denial - how could this happen to me?

Anger - Mostly turning my anger into exercise.

Bargaining - Negotiating the pain away.

Depression - am I going to be alone forever?

I’m working on Acceptance

This serves to illustrate that health is something that isn’t just one element of our lives, it’s everything. The World Health Organization defines it as the state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not solely the absence of illness.

Here are some tips I’ve collected through my first year of med school, conversations with patients, and my own experience:

  1. Set aside the other worries going on in your life and take a moment to self-evaluate and check in with yourself. Are you healthy? What’s going on in your life?

  2. Baby steps, baby steps, baby steps. Ok you’ve identified something that could be going better for you. Make small attainable goals so you will accomplish the larger task at hand.

  3. As a self-diagnosed control freak, I’ve gained a lot more happiness when I realized that some things (ok, many things) are out of my control. Let the worry go. You gave it your best effort, now all you can do is wait. Make the wait more enjoyable.

  4. Be kind to yourself.

  5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. And be humble enough to accept it.


By: Aanika Balaji

I enjoy life as a medical student, an amateur artist, a dog walker, and casual global traveller. Either going solo, with friends, at homestays, or volunteering abroad, travelling has taught me a new way to view and perceive the world. My goal is to be an oncologist who is lucky enough to spend part of her career working abroad.

Keep up with me on my blog Travelling Cactus, Instagram and read more about my adventures on Pink Pangea!

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