The time I realized that I’m not special.


Being accepted into the ND program at NCNM was an exciting time for me.  I received a lot of personalized attention from the staff at NCNM.  They called sporadically to give me information and make sure I didn’t have any questions before moving to Portland.  I had going-away parties in my honor.  I went to dinners with friends who wanted to see me before I left.  My family was proud of me.  I heard, “congratulations!” countless times.  I felt like I’d accomplished something.  I felt important.

My girlfriend and I left Honolulu and arrived in Portland a few weeks before school started and spent our time apartment hunting and exploring the city.  I was quickly overwhelmed.  I felt small.  I lost that feeling of importance.  I decided to visit the school to remind myself why I’d moved to this weird, tiny, little city 100 miles away from the nearest ocean.

My girlfriend and I took a bus towards the school.  We missed our stop and ended up somewhere downtown.  We spent a few hours wandering aimlessly around Portland with no hope of making it to the school, so we went back to our rented room.

The next day, we found our way.  I stood outside the school for a while.  Then I walked around the buildings.  Then I stood there for a while longer.  Then decided it would be better if we came back another day.  I started to look for the nearest bus stop.  My girlfriend wouldn’t allow it.  She pushed me through the front door of the administrative building and into the admissions department.  I was uncomfortable and nervous.

I saw a head poke out of an office.  She said, “James!”  It was my admissions counselor.  She came out and gave me a hug.  We talked for a few minutes and she gave us suggestions for places to visit before classes started.

As we were preparing to leave, she told me that, a few weeks earlier, she received a mass-email from a colleague that said, “We have a writer coming to NCNM!” with a link to a blog post from my blog.  She joked about how excited she was that she’s the counselor who found me.

Her perfectly-timed ego stroke, along with her innate talent for putting me at ease, left me feeling important again.  I felt as though my coming to this school mattered.  As if I might actually be able to contribute.  She made me feel special.

And I really needed it.  I was flat-out afraid.  I’d given up everything that was comfortable and familiar to me so I could come to this school.  I recognize that it was egotistical to walk out of there feeling like I was somehow special, but I was desperately grasping at anything that made me feel less insignificant than I’d been feeling.  My confidence was restored enough to enjoy the rest of my time before school started.

When New Student Orientation day arrived, I felt my nerves kicking back up.  “It’s ok,” I told myself.  “I’m the writer!”  Again, totally egotistical, I know, but it was all I had to keep from panicking.

The first day of orientation was a Tuesday.  It started at 8am, which meant I had to wake up infinitely earlier than I had in years.  I didn’t know what to wear.  The choice was easy, though, because all of my clothes were in transit, floating on a boat somewhere on the Pacific Ocean.  All I had were jeans, a t-shirt and a pair of sneakers.

With my unprofessional attire, puffy eyes from waking up too early and a backpack carrying nothing but a pen, I walked over to the school.  I stood outside the door of the academic building, took a deep breath and walked inside.

Arrows made of masking tape marked the floor.  I followed them, growing smaller and more insignificant with every step.  I quietly walked to the back of a line of students leading into a room labeled “student lounge”.  I looked up from the arrows at all the students waiting.  I wondered if any of them had trouble deciding what to wear.

I could feel the excited energy.  Many students were talking to each other.  Some were introducing themselves.  Others looked like old friends entering the next phase of their lives together.  Some appeared so confident that I wasn’t sure if they were incoming first-years or upperclassmen helping out with the event.

I didn’t talk.  I didn’t say anything to anyone.  I felt invisible.  Even if I tried to say something, I imagined my voice would’ve been too quiet for anyone to hear.  So I didn’t speak.  As I arrived at the first station of the line, I signed something and was handed a binder.  I have no idea what I signed.  I didn’t say anything, didn’t ask questions.  I simply nodded and did exactly what everyone else did.

The line progressed.  I was handed a t-shirt and directed to go stand in front of a camera.  I walked over and looked at the camera with my back against the wall.  Someone said, “Smile!” so I did.  Kind of.  Maybe.  I activated facial muscles, anyway.  I’m confident that with my up-too-early puffy eyes and the uncoordinated facial muscle contractions that it was not my greatest photographic performance.

I’ve never seen that photo and to this day, I don’t know why those pictures were taken of us.  I have 2 theories:  1) The photos were intended to be used for some kind of getting-to-know-each-other database, but after reviewing the photogenic properties of overwhelmed first-years at 8am, they scrapped the project entirely.  Or 2) It’s some sort of hilarious prank where the photos will lay dormant until they are flashed on the big screen as our names are called and we walk across the stage at graduation.  Only time will tell.

After that, I walked over to another line to get my student ID and bus pass, which required a second photo.  A chance for a subtle but much-needed redemption.  I was silently pleading with my eyes to get un-puffed.

This line was slow moving and I eventually felt so small and invisible and alone that I instinctively turned to the person behind me, reached out my hand and timidly introduced myself.  Looking up from the floor to his eyes seemed like it took an eternity.  He shook my hand and introduced himself.  He instantly and automatically became my security blanket.  I followed him around like a puppy for the rest of orientation (and most of first year).  Before we reached the front of the line, we were told that the first event was starting.  The line dispersed and we headed upstairs to find seats.

The first speaker had a moving and inspirational introduction.  It started to sink in that this was really happening.  I’m a student at NCNM.  I was filled with terror, excitement and I don’t even know what else.  I tried to push all of my feelings aside and listen to her speak.

I was able to pay attention only until she said, “Look around you.  These people are your family now.”  I started thinking about my family.  And my friends.  All the people I love.  None of them were here.  This is not my family.  It took everything I had to hold back my tears.  No matter how much effort I put into it, I couldn’t hear anything the speakers said after that.  For the next few hours, they talked about how to navigate the school’s websites, how to gain access to course materials and other things that probably would’ve been helpful bits of information, had I been able to listen.

When we were released for lunch, my security blanket and I ran downstairs.  Within minutes, we had our freshly printed IDs dangling from lanyards around our necks and made our way to the room with the school-supplied lunch.  To avoid being perceived as a stalker, I slowly migrated away from my security blanket and sat at a random table.  I was quickly welcomed to their ongoing conversation.

I mostly listened.  My voice was still too quiet to be heard.  During the conversation, I began to feel extremely inadequate and out of place.  My classmates were composed of people with PhD’s, master’s degrees, law degrees, professional this, experienced that.  They were all quick-witted, humble, funny and super good-looking.  And then me.  I have a bachelor’s degree that I received at 27 after dropping out twice.  I stopped clinging to any hope that having a stupid blog which shows up on page 5 of a Google search for NCNM meant anything.  It means nothing.  I am not special.  And I am way out of my league.

The rest of the day was even blurrier than the morning.  We were introduced to all the different department heads of the school and I don’t remember what any of them said.  They seemed enthusiastic.

The day ended at 5pm.  It took me twice as long to walk home as it had to get there that morning.  I spent the rest of the evening lying on the couch with my head on my girlfriend’s lap.  She lovingly petted my hair and put up with me responding to all of her questions with, “I don’t know” and somehow didn’t punch me in the face.  She’s a keeper.

The following day’s orientation events didn’t start until 11am.  The morning was reserved for some students to be tested for TB, which was mandatory before classes began.  The entirety of the day’s events consisted of lectures and workshops given by Jeff Bucholtz from an organization called We End Violence.

It kept my attention and I really enjoyed the entire presentation.  I appreciated it even more because there was no talk about school or anything that reminded me of my inadequacy.  It was hot, though.  Really hot.  It felt like it was 150 degrees.  By the end of the day, I was soaked in sweat.

It was only getting worse when I returned home at 4:30pm.  My apartment was blazing hot.  My girlfriend and I decided that the only solutions were either to go grocery shopping in the frozen food aisle until the sun went down, or go see a movie.  We opted for the movie.  We looked up show times and started on our way.

It was a 20-minute trip on the bus and then a short walk to the theater.  After getting off the bus, like lost tourists, we were hovering over an iPhone, trying to figure out which direction to walk.  We determined where to go and walked towards the busy intersection we needed to cross.

As we both finally looked up from the phone, we saw a woman across the intersection collapse and fall into the road.  She fell face down with her arms still at her side.  She wasn’t moving.  We were trapped by a wall of cars zooming past us.  I turned to my girlfriend to tell her to call 911, but she had the same idea and was already on the phone.  After a few agonizing seconds that felt like minutes, there was a break in traffic and we sprinted across the street.

I dropped to my knees next to her and asked, “Are you ok?  Can you hear me?”  She wasn’t responding.  I put my hand on her back and could feel that she was breathing and had a heartbeat.  I immediately came to the disheartening realization that I had no idea what to do next.  I had no way of helping this woman.

I was in a motorcycle accident once, and the worst parts of it were the hot sun relentlessly pounding down on me and feeling the panic and confusion of the people around me.    So I tried my best to make sure that she didn’t have a similar experience.  As people gathered around us, I asked them to stand over her to block the hot sun.

I gently rubbed her back as I calmly talked to her.  “We’ve got some help on the way.  You fell into the street and have a little cut over your eye.  We just want to make sure that everything is ok, so we’re all going to wait here until the ambulance arrives.  Sorry it’s taking so long.  They’ll be here really soon.”  But the whole time, I was thinking, “I’m so sorry I can’t help you.  Please be ok.”

As she slowly regained consciousness, she was reaching out and blindly grabbing at anything.  She got a hold of the NCNM student ID hanging around my neck and pulled my head down.  I slipped the ID out of her hand and replaced it with my hand.  I stayed there until an ambulance finally arrived.  It took so long.  The EMTs moved me aside and began taking care of her.  They put her on a stretcher and carried her away.

It wasn’t clear what we were supposed to do next.  It felt wrong to simply go and enjoy a movie, but we decided that turning around and going home wouldn’t do any good.  We continued on our way to the theater, both lost in our own thoughts.  I took the ID from around my neck and shoved it into my pocket.  I kept thinking that during this woman’s moment of need, all I could do was kneel next to her and watch her suffer.  I hated myself for being so confused and helpless.  I was acutely reminded of my inadequacy.  I don’t remember much of the movie.  It was about magician thieves, I think.  The theater was icy cold.

I woke up early the next morning for the 9am start of the third and final day of orientation.  My confidence was gone.  My ego was dragging down by my feet.  I spotted my security blanket and we sat down.  The first couple hours were filled with more mind-numbing (but important) administrative information before we had a question-and-answer session with a panel of current students who, it seemed, were all simultaneously having the worst day of their lives.

They talked about how difficult and overwhelming everything would be.  “You’re all going to have a nervous breakdown at some point during first year.  I hope you make it through.”  It was not enlightening and not very helpful but, in retrospect, really, really funny.  (For the record, this nervous breakdown is definitely not an inevitable part of first year, don’t worry.)

My glimmer of hope finally arrived with the last speaker of the orientation.  She referred to this moment as the very beginning of our journey.  She spoke for close to 30 minutes, but that was all I needed to hear.  The beginning of our journey.  The night before, with the unconscious woman, I was berating myself for not being able to help her.  But really, I was berating myself for not having already completed medical school.  And that’s stupid.  I’m not supposed to know how to help anyone at this point.  I’m just starting.

The very last thing of orientation was a quiet walk through the school’s garden where we were encouraged to “set our intention” for our upcoming time at NCNM.  As I walked, I thought about the journey that I’ve just begun.  I thought about what was coming next.  I thought about my incredible, intimidating classmates.

My perspective changed.  While the educations, accomplishments and perfectly sculpted jaw-lines of my classmates certainly make them amazing, they in no way make me inadequate. We are all at the same starting line.  The next few years will be tough.  I’ll be tested.  Pushed to the limit, even.  And when it comes down to it, none of the details mean anything.  Not my puffy eyes, not my quiet voice, not my classmates’ prior accomplishments.  I don’t need to be special.  I’ve already done the one thing I needed to do, the only thing necessary in order to ensure my success:  I got here.

14 thoughts on “The time I realized that I’m not special.

  1. you totally captured that first morning, almost felt like you were writing about me! standing where we are now, makes me realize why upper classmen want to be mentors, and always say “if you have any questions, call me. email me. I’ll help.”


  2. Today I was thinking about the last point you made. There are so many things to do, where to begin, how to get it all done and blah blah blah, but if you make that initial effort, everything else will slide into place as time permits. And then there’s meditation.


  3. It baffles me that you don’t feel like the king of the school, because you are.
    Also, this perfectly articulates my experience.
    I started a blog with the intention of doing just this– describing, honestly, my experience at NCNM to help future students, but unlike you, I am not a writer. Or maybe I am lazy. Either way, I am so glad you are doing this, I can think of no one better suited to the task.
    Like I’ve said before, I’m so glad that we got here at the same time.


    1. I would absolutely LOVE to read your stories about NCNM and I’m certain I’m not alone.

      And being as perpetually scared and confused as I am automatically disqualifies me from being the king of anything.


      1. I’ve been reading most of your stories and I’m impressed by your multi talented skills, your ability to rise above all odds and your never give up messages. From a boy afraid to fight, you have conquered and mastered your weakness to successfully enter a new field of medicine. Hats off to you!!


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