Dalia Karol is a medical student in the Class of 2020 at the University of Ottawa
“Why waste my summer travelling when I should be preparing for clerkship?” I have heard many students say this during medical school. As co-chair of the University of Ottawa Medical School Wellness Committee, I recognize the value of taking time for oneself during medical school — especially since medical students are at high risk of burnout. While I appreciate the value of pursuing clinical and research electives, finding time to travel during our last month-long summer break can also be rewarding. Shared here are some of the lessons I have learned through travelling and how they have allowed me to reflect on my medical school experiences, gain a broader perspective, and make valuable international connections.
After spending time travelling in Europe during the summer after first year — gaining new perspectives while exploring the world outside of medicine — I began my second year energized for my classes, research, and electives. Learning about different cultures, history, and art while making international friends had impressed upon me that I am so much more than ‘just’ a medical student and that there is more to life than ‘just’ medical school. In Barcelona, I read The Shadow of the Wind, an international bestseller written by a Spanish author and set in Barcelona. At the end of this book, there is a “walking tour”, in which one can walk through Barcelona following the storyline of the novel. After finally locating the ‘Plaça de Nuria Monfort’, I found a group of American, Italian, and German tourists. We promptly engaged with one another, discussing how we were brought together by The Shadow of the Wind. Speaking about European literature in the Gothic Quarter with fellow travellers who brought varied perspectives and life experiences was a truly incredible experience. I was able to put aside the role of ‘medical expert’ and focus instead on the importance of human interactions, leading to growth in the ‘communicator’ and ‘collaborator’ CanMEDS domains.
Travelling during the summer break can also help medical students reflect upon their chosen career. During a three-week trip across India, I stayed near a tiny village in the Himalayas. This village was made entirely of mud-and-stick huts. As I walked by, a couple of the women waved hello and ran into their mud houses. They proceeded to bring out a plastic chair for me. While the local inhabitants seemed to have little in comparison to us, their first response to the foreigners entering their village equipped with heavy jackets, hiking boots, and cellphones was not one of fear or jealousy — it was to make us feel welcome. Their care for complete strangers was profoundly powerful. It reminded me of the many reasons I wanted to pursue medicine: that desire to make people feel comfortable, welcome, and cared for. This travel experience strengthened my perspective that there is more to a career in medicine than racking up publications and scoring perfectly on exams; it is about the power of caring and compassion that can have such an immense impact on our patients.
In addition to providing a means to reflect and grow, my travels have given me knowledge that I have applied upon my return. During a preclerkship endocrinology elective, my clinical teacher, Dr. Christopher Tran, introduced the idea that learning how to say "thank you" in different languages may help establish rapport with multilingual patients. He taught me that by taking the time to learn the correct pronunciation, we can show commitment to properly thanking patients in another language they speak, which hopefully reflects upon the efforts we are willing to invest in their care. I now frequently ask my patients if they speak any languages other than English. After spending some time traveling, I have picked up basic words in Spanish, Greek, Hindu, and Dutch, and am excited to chime in with a quick “hello” or “thank you” in those languages. This usually starts a conversation about how I have picked up these words, which further helps me build rapport with patients. My favourite example to explain is how I learned the Greek word for “thank you.” I often get a chuckle when I reply, “A fairy’s toe!” — a trick I was taught while travelling in Greece to help me remember the pronunciation of “ευχαριστώ / ef-hari-sto.” These small efforts to connect linguistically and culturally with my patients have made strong positive impacts on my clinical encounters.
Finally, in addition to allowing me to meet new people with incredible stories and cultures from a diverse range of backgrounds, travelling has given me the opportunity to connect specifically with international medical students. While in Athens, I met a medical student from Barcelona named Cristina. We immediately found common ground, bonding over shared medical school stories such as fumbling during practical exams as well as our mutual love for dance. We later discovered we would both be travelling to the Greek islands on the same weekend. I was able to sit on a beach in Greece with a medical student from Spain discussing the differences between our medical schools and healthcare systems. While Cristina’s six-year curriculum involves discrete courses completed in succession, our four-year spiral curriculum enables frequent returns to previously-learned concepts to achieve higher levels of understanding. I also learned about Spain’s prescription drug coverage arrangement: the government pays for part of the drug while the patient makes a copayment which varies depending on their stage in life and income level. In Canada, while drugs are generally cheaper, they are mainly paid for by insurance or out of pocket. With the current debates about a new national pharmacare plan, I appreciate the value of learning from healthcare professionals and patients in other countries about potential alternatives. Perhaps an income-modified copayment system can be used for Canadians without access to private insurance? Cristina and I are still in touch, communicating about different approaches to medical education and healthcare delivery. In fact, we are working on arranging international electives at each other’s respective medical schools to further learn from one another!
The wide range of experiences gained from my travels during medical school demonstrate how travelling can have cultural, linguistic, educational, and interpersonal benefits, along with providing exposure to different medical education and healthcare systems. Taking the time to travel has made me a better medical student. Indeed, travelling during medical school is not a waste of time, but an incredibly valuable investment to supplement one’s clinical and research experiences.
Acknowledgement: The author would like to express her gratitude to Dr. Christopher Tran for his editorial comments, as well as for his inspirational teaching and mentorship.