From the rugby pitch to the operating room

Marc Levin is a medical student in the Class of 2020 at McMaster University


I was always an active kid growing up. In high school, I attended an all-boys prep school. The curriculum was based on the old British system; accordingly, rugby was our main sport. Much to my mother’s dismay and my father’s delight, I started playing rugby in grade nine and went on to play at an international age-grade level.

Rugby was exhilarating. It provided me with a unique opportunity to develop communication skills, passion, emotion, work ethic, and resilience. It gave me the chance to experience raw moments of leadership and comradery.

In my Grade 11 rugby season, we had a strong team and were challenging our biggest rivals for the provincial title. Then, suddenly, my life was altered. One of my closest family friends — a second mother to me — was diagnosed with cancer. I was deeply confused, saddened, and angry.

Though I was physically on the rugby field, I was mentally consumed with thoughts about my family friend’s cancer. I felt hopeless and useless knowing there was nothing I could do for this person I loved. However, through rugby, I transformed hopelessness into action. It had always been a habit for me to tape my wrists before every rugby game. So, as a high school student looking for some clarity during this tumultuous time, I wrote the name of my family friend across the tape on my wrists and played every minute of every rugby game for her.

Around the same time, I had an influential rugby coach: the most passionate rugby coach I had ever trained with. Despite his great love for the sport, he always reminded us that “rugby is just a game where people run around holding an odd, oval-shaped ball — nobody out here is saving lives.” This message resonated with me in light of my family friend’s cancer and eventual passing, and forever altered my mentality moving forward in life.

I continued to play rugby, and when I was in Grade 12 my school went on to finally defeat our rival school and win provincial gold. I then travelled east to Queen’s University to study and play varsity rugby. Despite success on the pitch, my intrinsic drive and focus had shifted. I didn’t just want to be a guy running around on a field with an odd, oval-shaped ball — I wanted to save lives.

After my time at Queen's University, I was accepted to medical school at McMaster University and began my journey into the world of medicine. When family and friends would ask me what kind of doctor I wanted to be, I initially replied without hesitation that I wanted to be a medical oncologist. I wanted to be on the front lines of cancer research and care for individual patients — just like my family friend had been cared for by her doctors. Looking back, I realize I had never really thought about what the role of a medical oncologist entailed or the types of situations these specialists typically encountered.

Shortly after starting medical school, I entered the operating room for the first time. Scrubbing into a surgery felt so similar to running onto the rugby field again. The surgeons I shadowed embodied the same kind of raw leadership I had seen during rugby matches. The surgical pre-cut pause was akin to the rugby captain’s pre-game speech. The interdisciplinary surgical team flowed seamlessly during operations. Nurses and doctors handled important surgical instruments just as my teammates would pass the rugby ball to each other — not even having to look because of the practice and muscle memory. They demonstrated resiliency during countless focused attempts to stop a bleeding vessel. Everything about the unfathomable work ethic and mental challenge that surgery demanded, seemed to satisfy my intrinsic passion and drive. Most of all, surgery reminded me of situations in which I had previously been successful and found enjoyment.

For my peers who may be deciding between surgical and medical specialities, I urge you to think about the experiences that have shaped your life. Think not only about the experiences you have relished, but also about what contributed to your enjoyment. Why did you succeed in those situations? Think about where your passions lie and find something in medicine that excites you each and every day. The decision can be confusing and filled with doubt, but — with focused reflection — I believe that every medical student can clarify their path.

I feel humbled to be transitioning from a kid playing with an odd, oval-shaped ball to one saving lives.

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