The Distance Between Two Worlds

29 Apr 2020

By Alyssa Brown

I want you to think of your first love.  Close your eyes, and think of them. Mine was a blonde-haired nerdy linebacker on my college’s football team. I remember the heartbreak of him moving 14 hours away. We broke up when he moved—a common story for many of us. I was starting my senior year of college and applying to medical school, and he was getting his Master’s in Physics. Whenever I was sad about the breakup and listening to “our song” (Rollercoaster by Blink 182), my best friend Marlee always said, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” While our paths diverged and we never reunited, I’ve always liked the sentiment of the phrase.  If you are wondering why you are reading about first loves on a surgical blog, I get it. I didn’t think the sentiment would apply to medicine.

I think many of us have thought of the first time we entered the operating room or scrubbed in. I sure do. I remember the patient, which scrub I used, and even the pattern on the surgeon’s scrub hat. This was five years ago now, and if I close my eyes, I still smell the bovie and hear the whine of Mick Jagger singing Honky Tonk Women, and yes, Mick Jagger seems to follow me to the operating room.   From the first day in the operating room, I tried to spend as much time as I could with my mentor in the operating room. I was enchanted. During third year, I would even sneak back for her call nights and weekends, like a lunatic.  I don’t get to scrub in as much as I used to. I paused medical school after third year, in 2018, and I moved to Rochester, MN to start a PhD in Biomedical Engineering and Physiology.

Once I started my PhD, I quickly realized that I would not get as much OR time. Research work with cells and animals took up most of my time.  Every time I travelled back to visit my medical school friends, I would inevitably end up in the operating room with my mentor. I know it’s weird. I just missed it. After a year and a half in my PhD, I get to sneak away sometimes. I schedule half-days to shadow with my mentor here. I round with the pediatric surgery teams on two weekends a month.

I didn’t realize how much I would miss medicine until it was gone. It was no longer part of my daily life. I walk past patient rooms on the way to my laboratory in the mornings. I try not to think about their possible medical problems or why they are admitted. If I think about it too much, I get lost missing medicine. When I talk to my friends who are now interns, I live vicariously through their stories and patients. I realize how much I am missing.

This March, I travelled back to medical school to complete three weeks of outpatient pediatrics. I had not finished the clinical hours required before I moved for my PhD. In the fall, we made a plan. I would finish this time in March. I only had to complete the hours: no shelf, no quizzes, no assignments.  I was going to get back to medicine. I had my white coat ready to go. I was so nervous. Questions kept running through my mind.

Would I still know how to be a good student? Would I have forgotten everything? Do I still know how to write a “good note”? Would I screw up?

Here are the questions I got instead: “Are you a visiting student? Have you taken Step 1? What year are you in? Why aren’t you taking the quizzes? Are you an intern?

The answers were no, yes, somewhere in purgatory between third and fourth, I have completed them before, and no, but all my friends are.

The first morning back, I woke up two hours early to get ready. The walk to the hospital felt like walking to a first date. I had butterflies in my stomach, and I was grinning from ear to ear. I took a deep breath and buzzed into the newborn nursery. To my surprise, the first thing I saw was a familiar face. My classmate and friend from medical school was the pediatrics intern. The other third year medical student assigned to the newborn nursery was also a classmate and friend from medical school. We confused the attending when we said we all started medical school in the 2015 incoming class. We were all supposed to graduate in 2019, and only the intern did. We all had our different reasons of course, and we had different paths. It was nice to have familiar faces around me.

It was like riding a bike. I fell back into the rhythm of medicine, like I never left. I was happy to be back, and I was happy to feel useful. I felt like I was home again. I wasn’t in the operating room, but it still felt so good. It was like taking a deep breath after being underwater.

I had forgotten plenty of things like the HEADSS score and well-child exam questions. I also quickly realized I forgot my stethoscope. I did remember how much I loved patients. I had missed reading through the charts and missed hearing the patients’ stories.

I missed results. In research, I get results, but this is often after spending days to weeks to months troubleshooting and validating the experiment. I forgot how satisfying it was to order a rapid influenza or strep test and getting the answer within the hour. Don’t get me wrong, it is satisfying to get those research results after playing the long game and solving a problem. It is incredibly satisfying, but I missed the immediate effect of medicine. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Being gone from medicine made me realize how much it meant to me.

My rotation was cancelled after a week and a handful of days because of Covid-19. After lunch, they just told us to go home. Home was 14 hours away. The initial shock wore off, and I started crying like I had just been dumped. I hate to admit I did. I was sad. I was sad I had to leave and go back to my PhD. I had just gotten back to my happy place, medicine, and I already had to leave. It felt like I was leaving part of myself behind.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. I am sure I will miss research when I go back to medical school. I know I will be back in medicine, and it will be soon. It is something I can look forward to on the horizon. I appreciate the strange path I am on, and I am happy for the perspective it has given me. Just like I am still happy I met my first love. I am happy I have both medicine and research. I still can’t wait to be scrubbing in again with the orange soap and the 7.5 green gloves.       



Alyssa Brown grew up in Chattanooga, TN.  She went to Centre College for a B.S. in Biology and minor in History.  She fell in love with surgery after seeing her mentor perform an anoplasty during the first year of medical school.  She finished her third year of medical school in 2018 and wandered off the beaten path to get a PhD, before finishing her MD.  She is receiving her MD degree from the University of Louisville School of Medicine, and her PhD in Biomedical Engineering and Physiology at Mayo Clinic School of Biomedical Sciences.  She is currently working on research projects involving pediatric ulcer disease, diaphragm sarcopenia, and congenital diaphragmatic hernia. She has been a part of the AWS Blog Subcommittee and AWS Instagram Subcommittee for two years, and she has loved writing pieces for the blog over the past two years. When she is not buried in lab work, you will probably find her in the pediatric surgery OR, baking sweets and pastries that she saw on “Great British Bake-Off”, or off on an adventure. You can find her on Instagram @Alyssa_b_futuremdphd and on Twitter @Alyssa_B_MDPhD. _________________________________________________________________________

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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