How reading kept me sane in med school

I’m often asked why, as a practising GP, I would add Bibliotherapy to my practice. My usual reply is that I myself have found solace in reading during the most difficult periods of my life. And to be honest, it was literature that kept me sane during my medical studies.

When I went to university, I opted to do a combined Arts and Medical degree. This was at the University of New South Wales, and many of my friends thought I was a bit mad. I was going to become a doctor; why did I need an arts degree as well? It added an extra year – unnecessarily, some people probably thought! – to a six year degree. But I loved it.

As part of my Arts degree I majored in English literature. Not only that, but I wound up taking my Honours in English. It added a year to a seven year degree! Yes. That’s how much I loved it.

A good grounding

Looking back now, I realise that keeping myself firmly grounded in literature is what kept me sane through a very taxing workload in my studies. It’s funny that I say ‘grounded’; because actually, great stories allow us to soar. They send us to new lands, or new ways of thinking; they make us cry, laugh, hope and despair. They keep us human.

During that honours year, I did my thesis on children’s fantasy texts – specifically a comparison of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and the three books in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It seems a long time ago that there were only three Harry Potter books!

Does that seem strange? A medical student focused on children’s fantasy texts? I don’t know. I said before that stories keep us human. Sometimes, doctors aren’t seen as humans. We’re analysts or scientists. But first and foremost, we are listeners. We listen to people and hear about their lives, we listen to their bodies, and we listen to their stories. That’s why I feel that literature is so important for everyone, and especially for medical professionals.

Of course, if I hadn’t studied literature at UNSW, I still would have finished my medical degree and I’d still be a practising doctor today. But it definitely kept me sane! More importantly, it helped me to stay true to myself and to the things that I love. I think it also made me a more well-rounded medical professional.

What about you? Are you a new student, finding your studies a bit of a challenge? Or wondering if you’ve chosen the right path?

a novel prescription

Why not let your brain take a holiday? Try one of these books:

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Changing Places by David Lodge (Book 1 of The Campus Trilogy; can be found in A David Lodge Trilogy)