Dan was the quintessential Californian boy: golden skin, auburn hair, and a radiant, contagious smile. We met during medical school orientation in Tel Aviv, Israel. Bubbling with excitement and anxiety about the journey ahead, we bonded exploring the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem’s Old City.
In our first year of medical school, I was overwhelmed by the heaps of new knowledge while Dan played tennis on sunny afternoons. From the outside, he was California cruising.
In our second year, during the months leading up to the dreaded Step 1 board exam, Dan lost his shine. His face seemed sunken. He was riddled with insecurities, questioning if he was ready or fit enough to take on the burden of being a physician. He feared he would not be able to provide for others. For the first time, I saw his vulnerability. He was tipping into the vicious cycle of self-doubt and depression. Soon, I found Dan crippled in bed, barely able to speak.
Going to medical school in Israel meant living simultaneously in a sunshine paradise and a region riddled with political instability. In the fall of 2012, war broke out. Another invasion into Gaza. Our resilience was put to the test. Blaring sirens signaling us to find shelter interrupted class. Hearing the bombs explode in the sky was our relief; this time my friends and I were safe. Dan left school during this period to get proper treatment at his father’s urging.
Fast forward to January 2015, my fourth year of medical school. I had embraced the Israeli way of life: “akol ihé beseder” meaning “everything will be alright.” I was assisting with a surgical case when my phone started ringing incessantly. The texts read, “Dan killed himself.”
Dan, how did you meet your edge? I miss your soft gaze. How could I have supported you better in your recovery? This was my voice to the wound as images of our countless evening bus rides, his loss of self and his slow transformation flashed before my eyes. Losing Dan felt like losing a family member and a small part of myself.
Why didn’t the administration step in? Why didn’t we have better access to psychological services? How did he go from being sunny to a shell of himself?
In medical school, we learn to wear masks of invincibility. We are taught to encourage others to seek help while neglecting our self-care. We start transforming from care-seekers to caregivers. Taking time off for mental illness is looked down upon. Peers, mentors, and even administration tell us to just push through.
Dan was an empathetic and calm soul, a natural listener who possessed all of the qualities that cannot be taught in medical school. I mourned his passing with my classmates and for the first time in four years, we really took care of each other and held each others’ suffering.
We must continue to hold each other, to look inside and outside of ourselves and to learn when to seek help to preserve ourselves and our community. Only then can we reach our full potential as healers.
Alexandra Ewenczyk is a first year OB/GYN resident at Maimonides Medical Center who intends to transition into psychiatry.