I had always thought I wanted to be a surgeon. Having spent more than half of medical school doing surgical-related research and projects, spending the whole 4 months worth of electives in the 4th year of med school doing General Surgery and spending 3 postings (9 months) out of my one year long houseman-ship doing surgery again and then going on to take post graduate examinations in Surgery, I was pretty much bent on doing a surgical specialty. Yet, I have come to realize that when God calls you to something different in life, the joy and peace you derive from obeying His will and aligning your human wants with His wants for you in life, truly transcends all understanding.
I had previously done two measly months in Radiology as an elective posting (not by choice, but because I wanted to try something outside of surgery for fun before I went back in for a long six month posting and it so happened that there was an opening in this department). Of the two months, I even shamelessly took 2 weeks off to go on a pilgrimage in France with Father Jude.
As our God of humor would have it, five minutes into meeting Father Jude at the pre-trip briefing in late March 2015, Deanna has us introduced and she tells Father that I want to be a surgeon. Then Father says, “Nicole, why don’t you consider interventional radiology? Aren’t the working hours and lifestyle of the doctors there better? Still can do procedures right! Then you’d have more time to serve God in church.” I thought to myself, “Wah this priest is so specific! Interventional radiology? How on earth does he even know what interventional radiology is???” Yet, that was when the seed was first planted in me. And because Father had said this, I took it to heart – I saw Father as His messenger and because the apostle of the land and my shepherd had spoken, I started to give it some serious thought.
So I applied for an extension to stay on in Radiology when my posting came to an end in June 2015, but it wasn’t granted. I was posted back to General Surgery again. I told myself not to be disheartened, that it was okay and I would use the six months to complete all unfinished tasks – to tidy up whatever existing research papers I had done halfway, to complete my surgical specialist exams even if I didn’t intend to stay on eventually (because I felt it was the responsible thing to do, to see all things I had started to its end), to learn as much as I could because I was pretty sure that much as I loved the subject matter, it wasn’t the place where I felt I was meant to spend the rest of my life.
Going back to Surgery was hard, having to re-adapt to the long hours and the working culture there again, and then finding myself miserable when facing work-related angst. Then came September, midway into my surgical posting. It was terrible the week I found out that I had failed the second part of my MRCS (specialist surgical exams). Really, God? What’s the point of letting me pass Part A and not Part B? What’s the point of putting me back in this surgical posting for six months if not to complete the tasks I have started, so that I can close this chapter conclusively and move on with life? So I sat in the stairway of the hospital after work that Friday evening, on the phone wailing in self-pity to a friend, hating the way things were turning out, wondering if God had forgotten all about me. Where was God that day? Was He not looking out for me?
I consider myself lucky though, as I think about how God was so swift to comfort me when I was heartbroken and felt blessed. It certainly didn’t make the pain of failing my MRCS Part B any less or any easier to bear, but I knew He was there.
I recall the first Friday of September 2015, when I was supposed to join Jeremy and Carrie at the Sacred Heart mass but was held up at work, and finding out in the same evening my results. (If you don’t already know, the Sacred Heart masses at St Ignatius include a period of adoration, following which the volunteers would distribute scrolls to each member of the congregation containing a verse from the bible, in hope that it would speak to the recipient specifically). Feelings of anger and disappointment overcame me all at one go that day, but Carrie picked a scroll on my behalf at the mass, and this was what it said,
“Do not lose heart, because our inner being is renewed each day. The present burden of our trial is light enough, and earns us an eternal weight of glory beyond comparison.” – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Thank you Lord for being so quick to comfort me, even when I was full of anger, doubt and disappointment. I am thankful for the gift of two friends, in particular who have always stayed steadfastly by my side in their gentle but firm ways. The first friend, G, reminded me that I am but a pot of clay in His hands, and it is not in my position to question what His plans are for me. I pray because God commands me to pray. And while it is sometimes not easy to see eye to eye with what God wants, whether He gives us what we ask for in prayer and petition eventually may not be all that relevant in life.
And as God would have it, both of them (not knowing one another) had sent me the same bible verse (2 Corinthians 4:16-18) to comfort me on finding out about my exam results. They were as sad as I was, they fasted for days on my behalf, they offered up their work in alleviation for my suffering. I am grateful because I know that it is only by His grace that I have friends as precious as them, who on His behalf, kept persistently reminding me of 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. God was unmistakably speaking to me in the people around me. I just had to learn to take time off, to quieten the chaos in my heart, to pause and listen.
As I believed that God wanted me to persevere, I did, because the Radiology exams were upcoming next in less than 3 weeks after the surgical exams and I had to conquer them. It was just 21 days between the surgical and radiology exams. I did my best to put the first setback out of my mind. It was agonizing to say the least, because the next time I wanted to go for the Sacred Heart mass was the first Friday of October 2015. And then I had to do call. It was a crappy Friday call, I didn’t get to eat or sleep and the admissions seemed to be piling up one after another. I hadn’t even had the time to sit down or take a sip of water for 20 hours and counting. At 7pm that day, as I was in the Emergency Department resuscitation bays seeing yet another new admission, my phone rings. Then I got my results. I failed by 0.5%. SERIOUSLY, GOD? 0.5%??? Isn’t that one miserable mark??? It made me question the presence of God in my life. I was tired, exhausted, overwhelmed and desperate to leave surgery and not even knowing if I wanted to be a doctor anymore.
Deanna went to the Sacred Heart mass that evening, and on my behalf, she took a scroll for me. I called her crying after my results were out, and she came to visit me while I was on call. This was what the scroll said:
“The Lord replied, My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” – Exodus 33:14
Suddenly, the admission that night stopped. It felt as though God was giving me the time I needed to breathe, to seek rest, to be comforted by Him through her.
Following my failures in both examinations which were a mere <1 month apart from one another, my prayer life started taking a turn for the worse. I used to pray the Lauds, Vespers, None regularly everyday. I would offer up every piece of work I do, believing it would be sanctified by Him. But it began to feel as though I didn’t even know what I was praying for anymore. I felt so numb, so indifferent, uncaring. Going to CTIS on Monday evenings for my Theology classes even started to feel like a chore. I felt as though I’d rather spend my time catching up on some sleep.
Then came November where I finally could attend the Sacred Heart mass but I was reluctant to go and being stubborn about not wanting to pray anymore. Yet, dear Oswin asked me very aptly, “Where is Jesus in your life? What would He want you to do?” These questions resonated deeply with me, and I started to feel ashamed of myself.
I dragged myself to that mass with a heavy heart, and in that session, God called out to me. He chastised me with a timely reminder. How could I even expect to be blessed when all I have done is to be stubborn and selfish in my human ways? Was this how things were supposed to work? It felt as though He was scolding me (albeit in a gentle way) and telling me that I shouldn’t be giving up on my prayer life however dismayed and disillusioned I may be with the way things were turning out. It began to feel as though I was focusing too much on myself and too little on God. I was concentrating too much on my human wants and what I thought was good for myself, too much on my selfish desires, and too little on dying to myself everyday and surrendering to Him. I really needed to learn how to decrease in order that He may increase. So as I plucked up the courage and determination to drag myself to the Sacred Heart mass in November 2015, I finally had the chance to pick out my scroll myself, and this is what He said to me:
“You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised.” – Hebrews 10:36
God was clearly reminding me to come Home to Him, He was calling out to me. I felt He was saying, “Beloved child, just pray, just trust in me. Just wait, wait on Me.”
And then comes December, when results for the next MOPEX (MO Posting Exercise) were released, and I got posted into Neurosurgery. It wasn’t even among the top 10 choices of postings I had applied for. I had promised myself that the six months in General Surgery were going to be the last few months of my surgical career. I think to myself (yet again!), Seriously God? Didn’t you tell me to persevere? Didn’t you tell me to wait in patience? I have waited and waited in vain. And I am thoroughly exhausted. Do I really want to be a doctor? Is this what I’ve truly been called to do? It’s tiring to have crappy working hours, to be doing every other day calls at times, working 30 over hours straight with no sleep, no have no time to eat or pee or poop even. You become cynical, and you ask yourself, really, who are you doing this for? What are you doing this for? Are you really happy doing it? It felt like deja vu all over again. Like I was going to relive the General Surgery nightmare in Neurosurgery now, and that I’d have to endure 6 months of hardship all over again.
Desperate to exchange my MOPEX posting with someone else, I go to the December Sacred Heart mass with only one petition in mind, that God would please deliver me from this anguish. And instead, He tells me this:
“When you call out to me and come to me in prayer, I will hear your prayers. When you seek me with all your heart and soul, you will find me available to you, says the Lord, then I will reverse your plight and I will bring you back to the place from which I exiled you.” – Jeremiah 29:12-14
I find it funny that everyone knows the famous verse Jeremiah 29:11, that “God knows well the plans He has in mind for me, plans for our welfare and not for woe, plans to give us a future full of hope.” Yet, no one really knows the verses that follow.
I find it even more God-incidental that the scroll I picked myself that night was NOT of the familiar and frequently recited Jeremiah 29:11 quote that everyone knows, but instead it was the verses that followed subsequently. God was telling me to wait on Him yet again. He would send me back to the place from which He had exiled me. He was encouraging me in the same manner that Jeremiah, the prophet, had encouraged his people in the Letter to the Exiles.
So, was Radiology the place from which He exiled me? I didn’t know what the future would hold at that point in time. I didn’t know and didn’t understand why I was placed in Neurosurgery. It was extremely painful to think about what could have been and what will not be, even more heartbreaking to think that maybe even after the six months in Neurosurgery, I would still not be able to head back to Radiology in July 2016.
I had to constantly remind myself that I do everything for Him and Him alone, and that I am answerable to no one else but Him. So while I received several offers from other people to have my Neurosurgery posting swapped, I decided it was best to decline. I chose to go in obedience to Him, because I believed that He had put me here in Neurosurgery for a reason.
Then came 3 February 2016 when residency results were supposed to be released. I spend the whole day refreshing the MOH online page at hourly intervals in trepidation. And the results still don’t come out. I think to myself, maybe I’m not meant to know this. Maybe I’m not meant to do this. After all, the program director for Radiology residency training told me in a previous email just a month ago that I’d have to target starting my specialty training in July 2017 as the slots available for 2016 entry were already filled with doctors more senior than I was with much more experience, who had already passed their exams and who had been pre-selected from previous years. There were supposedly no vacancies left, and even if more spaces were created to take new trainees in, there were multiple people ahead of me – doctors more senior than I was, doctors who had already passed their Radiology exams.
Then comes 4th February, Thursday, I start feeling anxious all over again the moment I awake. I do my call and because it is so busy, this issue slips my mind and I absentmindedly forget about the nervousness I’m facing from not knowing the residency results.
Friday, 5th February 2016, arrives. I am post call, and extremely lethargic. I haven’t slept in 30 hours. And just as I step out of the hospital, I get a congratulatory phone call from a dear friend who on my behalf was so worried, and he had stalked the MOH page repeatedly and spied on the results for me. I felt delirious, to say the least! It was not so much happiness, but more gratitude at the sudden realization of how much He had blessed me. I started weeping on the ride home; at the thought of how blessed I was, thankful for His grace and mercy, that however unworthy I was, He had chosen to be merciful to me. And most importantly, He had truly sent me back to the place from which He had previously exiled me, just as He had promised.
To top it all off, I decided to attend the Sacred Heart mass again in a bid to give thanksgiving, to tell Him that despite the apprehension that engulfs me with regards to going to a new department, taking new post-graduate exams and starting all over again, how my heart is so full of love and gratitude. And as always, He faithfully reassures me via my scroll again, with Psalm 121:7-8:
“The Lord will keep you from all harm, He will watch over your life; The Lord will watch over your coming and going, both now and forever.”
This blessing feels too big to be received by someone as unworthy as I am, but I am reminded that I am His blessed and chosen child, and that “surely, His goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” (Psalm 23:6).
So, this is my prayer today –
Dear Lord, let me learn to sing of Your goodness not only in times like this, but also when You’ve chosen to close certain doors in my face because really, You know me better than I know myself, You’ve loved me more than I love myself. I have learnt that when I fail to set aside my stubbornness, I almost always inevitably end up hurting myself.
People have been coming to me to say, congratulations! But, are you sure this is what you really want? You’re giving up so much patient interaction. Isn’t that what makes a doctor? Do you really want to be sitting in a dark room reading and reporting scans all day and for the rest of your life? Isn’t that boring and dreary? No one is going to appreciate the effort you make. No one is going to thank you for it.
And without a doubt in my mind, I tell myself, what is human affirmation when God sees the work I do?
Even though my first formal Radiology exams are upcoming in two weeks, and I am feeling so terribly unprepared because of the 6 calls I’ve had to complete in the first two weeks of this month already, I am ready to take it on with the knowledge that He is with me every step of my way. Today, I take peace in knowing that when I have discerned His will, He will carry me through it.
Feeling at the top of the world right now! Thank you Lord, for making the dark dungeons my second home for the next 5 years and the rest of my life. I have never been surer that I am right where I am supposed to be. And ever since I’ve come to know the residency results, this has constantly resounded in my head – “All praise and all thanksgiving, be every moment Thine.”
Truly, I am beyond blessed.