5 Life Lessons from the Labour Ward for Surviving Medical School

Feb 9, 2023

Written by Emma Rose Quinn

Emma is a medical student in Melbourne and has a special interest in women’s and children’s health.

Call me crazy, but, as a third year medical student on my O&G rotation, I’ve come to believe that there are quite a few similarities between medical school and the labour experience. It sounds far-fetched but upon reflection I’ve been able to draw parallels between my experience in the birthing suite and my time so far in medical school, and as such there are many lessons I think we can take from the labour and delivery ward, just hear me out. 

Lesson 1: Every journey is different, so don’t compare yours to anyone else’s

Women entering the birthing suite are at many different stages of their labour journey. Some are arriving for their booked induction of labour. Some enter through the emergency department with premature labour. Some enter with their membranes ruptured and experiencing intense contractions. You can find yourself walking from one room in which a multiparous mother is already pushing just four hours into labour, and into another room next door where a primiparous mother is entering her tenth hour of labour and slowly dilating. No single pregnancy and labour journey is the same as another.

The same can be said for our journey through medical school. Nowadays we are coming to medicine from more diverse backgrounds, not just the traditional undergraduate biomedical or science pathway, which is incredible! We learn in varied ways, achieve different things, undertake gap years or pursue additional studies, each factor contributing to our own unique journey. And because no single journey in medicine is the same, we each bring to the field our own special qualities. 

It can be easy to compare our journey and knowledge to that of those around us, but remember especially not to compare the start or middle of your journey to the end of someone else’s.

Lesson 2: A support team is crucial

While each labour experience is different, I found there to be one constant factor among every labour and delivery I was involved with: A support team.

I witnessed amazing partners, sisters, midwives, obstetricians, anaesthetists and students caring for and supporting the mothers to ensure she and her baby were healthy and safe. The mother utilised the members of her support team when she needed them and they were there encouraging her, caring for her, wiping her tears, holding her hand and, generally, making sure she was supported. 

Medical school can be, like labour and delivery, incredibly hard to endure–without the physical pain, of course–and during it, in order to succeed, be safe and healthy, you also need a great support network. Like for a labouring mother, often this can involve a whole team of people: family, friends, a partner, peers and colleagues, a GP, a psychologist, tutors, mentors and university support staff. Support might manifest as a study group working through university content and preparing for exams, working with health professionals to ensure your physical and mental health is being looked after, or receiving a hug from a loved one in times of celebration or hardship. You don’t have to go through medical school alone, find your support team who will always be there for you. 

Lesson 3: It’s a marathon not a sprint

On television and in movies, labour is often portrayed as a quick process: The mother goes into hospital and within a few short scenes the baby is born. I quickly learnt this is far from the truth, with the majority of labours lasting all day and continuing well into the night and early hours of the morning. Labour is a marathon, it is hard, you need rests and breaks and as much as everyone wants it to be over quickly, often that isn’t the case. 

Medical school and training is also a marathon, not a sprint. University can take from 5 to 7 years, 1 year as an intern, 1+ years of residency, a minimum of 3 to 8 years of speciality training, a fellowship, and the list goes on. You can’t sprint through and rush the training, no matter how quickly you want to finish and reach consultancy. Unfortunately burnout is a real consequence, so it’s important for us to take care of ourselves, pursue and enjoy interests outside of medicine, take breaks when we need them, and not be afraid to ask for help. 

Medicine is a profession of lifelong learning and ultimately there is no finish line, so try to enjoy the process and embrace all the ups and downs that occur along the way.

Lesson 4: Have a plan B

Many women create a well thought out plan for how they would like their labour and delivery to occur. These plans often outline their preferences for their ideal birthing experience, which may include: pain relief options, birthing positions, music, cultural elements and breastfeeding desires. However, I’ve witnessed enough of them now to know that births don’t always go to plan. Complications do occur and the birth can require obstetric interventions, additional medications, or an emergency caesarean section. To ensure a healthy and safe mum and baby, sometimes a plan B or a plan C needs to be resorted to.

The same applies to medical school. We are in a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to get accepted into specialty colleges and the training bottleneck phenomenon is posing real challenges. Unfortunately, not everyone will get positions in their desired training college, or their first preference hospital as an intern. Just like in labour, in medical school and medical training there will be setbacks, hurdles, failures and complications that we will all encounter. 

It’s important to try to keep an open mind about medicine and where it can take you and not to be disheartened when plan A doesn’t work out–plan B or plan C could very well surprise you!

Lesson 5: Just keep pushing

The final lesson and potentially the most valuable of all: It will all be worth it. No doubt there will be times when you feel like giving up and wonder if you made the right decision when choosing to study medicine. Remember your ‘why’ for wanting to become a doctor, keep working hard and putting in effort; there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. Just keep pushing!


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