A Service Year of Growth by Rebecca Merrill

Throughout my undergraduate years, life was often a blur filled with assignments, exams, club meetings, volunteering, research, and a social life mixed in there. The “pre-med” life as it was called at my university was functioning from deadline to deadline while attempting to maintain a GPA that would still get us into medical school. As I was approaching graduation and searching for gap year opportunities, I found the National Health Corps and thought that it matched my goals for a gap year- slow down and do something productive that was not related to academia for a year. Entering into the program, I tried to prevent myself from setting expectations about my service term- which in “2020” hindsight was probably for the best.

So, what were the lasting impacts of a service term? Well, besides the obvious COVID pandemic disrupting the world and all of our service terms, the service term brought many challenges and learning moments. One of the recurring themes throughout the year has been growth. As I mentioned, I lived the typical, busy college student schedule before entering the service term. Once I started serving at my host site, I realized that this was no longer needed to feel “accomplished” or “busy”. Sometimes a complicated fifteen-minute encounter trying to help a patient who is uninsured, speaks a different language than me, and has just heard a life altering diagnosis of diabetes is enough to exhaust someone. There was not a textbook or syllabus to guide in these interactions, so I quickly had to grow and be confident I could do my part efficiently and correctly. As a future physician, my only goal I had was to grow in my ability to interact with patients. By Day 2, this skill had improved drastically out of necessity, and I continue to improve daily using every interaction as a learning opportunity.

With growth in any subject, independence will follow. After a few weeks, I found myself becoming confident in my decisions and relied less and less on my guide or my supervisor for advice. My newly gained independence would become key in a smooth service term. Independence allowed me to develop routines and schedules to “get things done” in a timely manner and continue to be productive even on slow days at the health center. Also, once I was able to outwardly display my independence, the doctors and nurses began to know who I was and would flag me down to ask questions regarding their patients. When I was paged, I was no longer “PAP person” but “Rebecca” which this transition meant a lot to me as I was no longer just associated as the ever-changing person in the PAP office.

As I end my service term, I find myself starting another academic journey to become a physician. My year of service with NHC will forever have an impact on me and I will use the growth and independence I gained while working with my future patients. I have learned not all patient interactions will be easy from decisions made on the spot, difficulties communicating, delivering undesirable news, and patients that will have strong stress responses in your presence. I will use the invaluable lived experience from my cramped PAP office at Health Center 2 wherever my path may lead.