To France and Back - A Certain Je ne Sais Quoi

By Hannah Lust, MS2 (Class of 2015)

I did a lot of research the summer after finishing my first year of med school.

It wasn’t in a lab, though. I didn’t see any patients, or do any chart reviews. This was a different kind of research—it involved pastries and maps of Paris. Yes, in France.

This seems out of place, and it may take some explaining. As I peered out from the midst of a whirlwind second semester of medical school, the summer that stretched between first and second year seemed like a blank canvas. It was wide open, just beckoning me to do…what, exactly?

What would my perfect summer look like? Participating in exciting clinical research? Volunteering in a clinic in another country? Lying by the pool, reading every book I had missed out on in the past year? Any of these options would have been fulfilling in their own ways. Deep down though, I knew what I wanted. I was just a little afraid to admit it.

I was certain that I wanted to run far away from the library. I wanted to shove my syllabi in a box and bid good riddance, at least for 10 weeks.

Don’t get me wrong – I wholeheartedly enjoyed my first year of school. Sometimes we just need a break – or a very long break. Our brains need to think about other things. After a year of biochemistry and physiology, I was a little concerned about the little known conditions of science-brain hypertrophy…and rest-of-brain atrophy

So I established requirement number one: keep the science to a minimum. Then, I decided I needed to get out of Dallas. The next three years of my life will be spent in this city, on this campus, in this hospital. I needed to stockpile some memories to sustain me through those long days ahead.

The final piece of the puzzle was the French language. I learned it, spoke it during a semester abroad, and then moved back to Texas. You can imagine how many times I’ve been able to use my language skills since then.

I saw the summer as my last chance for full immersion, my last opportunity to nail down all those verb conjugations and colloquial expressions. When I returned, I promised myself, I would read a French newspaper everyday and rent French movies to keep it up. (What’s that saying about the best-laid plans…?)

All signs pointed to France. With Dr. Mihalic’s blessing (and her assurances that I would still get into residency programs), I applied for a position to live with a homestay family in Paris, tutoring them in English. A week after classes ended in May, I packed a suitcase for seven weeks and boarded a plane to Charles de Gaulle airport. 

I spent seven of the most incredible, eye-opening, refreshing, interesting weeks of my life in a suburb of Paris called Marly-le-Roi. My host family welcomed me into their home with open arms and broken English. I spent each morning tutoring the daughter in my native language. After a year of learning about muscles, enzymes, and signal transduction pathways, it felt wonderful to be the resident expert in something.

I spent nearly every afternoon wandering the streets of Paris, with no schedules, no syllabus, and no science. My mind was free to think in French, to observe the architecture and the street signs and the people around me, and to simply…be. I let myself absorb my surroundings in a way that we sometimes aren’t able to during the school year. We simply don’t have the time or the mental energy.

On the weekends, I traveled with a med school friend who was working in Portugal. I checked the D-Day beaches and the champagne caves in Reims off my bucket list. I discovered that I love Vienna and reinforced my obsession with the lakes (and chocolate) of Switzerland. I took trains, planes, and buses to castles, museums, and mountains. Those memories and images I needed to stockpile? Got ‘em.

So what was the point of all this? In all of my “absorbing” and “experiencing,” didn’t I forget everything I learned first year? Won’t my residency applications suffer without that summer full of research? 

No, and no. Here’s why. 

Being a physician is going to require me to give so much of my physical, mental, and emotional energy to my patients and to my profession. I can’t approach the next seven years of training with any hesitation or trepidation. I can’t have any regrets, no “I wish I would have…” moments. The study and practice of medicine will demand my utmost attention and care, and I wouldn’t be able to give that if I were unsatisfied with my personal experiences.

I fulfilled some of my deepest-seated dreams this summer. I lived in a city that has fascinated me since age 5; I continued to expand my horizons, both literally and figuratively. And let’s not forget those pastries. More than 30 patisseries and boulangeries scoped out and visited, all in the name of research for my baking blog. I told you I did research. 

I also strongly believe that the successful practice of medicine is deeply rooted in the ability to understand our patients and their backgrounds, and to make every effort to connect with them. Exposing ourselves to new cultures and people can only help us in these endeavors. I understand that I won’t be seeing many Parisian patients in Parkland, but simply engaging my mind in observing and processing a different way of life will strengthen these “people skills” as I continue through my training.

Strangely enough, spending a summer away will also make me even more mentally present during the school year. I have already noticed a difference in my focus and motivation. I am, for the most part, rested, enriched, and energized.

I have more than 1,200 photos on my computer that I can glance at to remind me of my experiences – experiences for which I am immensely grateful. There’s an email from my French host family in my inbox, so that I can maintain that exciting connection to another culture and avoid science-brain hypertrophy.

I am…dare I say it?...ready for the next three years.