Studying Medicine in a Politically Unstable Country: An OMEF's Experience

Malak Helal
Published on Apr 30, 2021. Updated on May 3, 2021.

Med school is tough in any environment, but in a country facing political crisis, the stress, difficulties, and even stakes become heightened. In this post, third-year medical student Malak Helal discusses her experience learning medicine in Lebanon during distracting and dangerous times and how taking certain steps can help you overcome any challenge. 

Being a medical student is a marathon. This is a well-circulated fact. There are only water breaks and no stops. Every medical student I’ve known has struggled with keeping their spirits up and their motivation in check while sprinting between exams. Being in a politically unstable country makes the affair even more challenging. 

Revolution in Lebanon

 In the beginning of my second preclinical year of medicine, the people of Lebanon held a nationwide movement in opposition against the government. Roads were blocked with burning tires. Guns were shot. People were hospitalized. Some even died. 

As medical students in this situation, our place was with our people on the streets protesting in the name of our values. We needed to fight for the rights of people who have been financially and politically oppressed for decades. We were either on the streets, in discussion circles, on social media, or glued to the TV. The idea that we should be at home studying cardiology when our physical world was in literal flames was just untenable.

Turns out, medical school waits for no one and nothing—not even a revolution. We quickly learned that we had to continue to move forward; we could choose to swim along with the tide, or be pulled underneath.

Osmosis illustration of a quote illustrating the marathon-like nature of medical school.

Getting our bearings

So how did we get the hang of this? How did we plan our days? And most importantly, how did we find purpose in the grimmest times Lebanon has ever seen?

If you are a student living in a country, state, or area of political instability, here are some things to consider.

Step 1: Learn to find refuge 

The thing we need most in times of uncertainty is community. Being around people I love and trust, who I could share my thoughts and reservations with, saved me again and again. 

Refuge allows us to survive within the chaos. It allows us to enjoy company, humor, and even maintain our sense of responsibility during times of ambiguity.

Step 2: On busy days, ignore the news 

This is an extremely tough one, and not always possible to do. But there are times when you will need to draw mental boundaries for a day or two. It can help.

Step 3: Plan ahead to keep the flame of hope alight

Whether you’re taking the USMLE board exams, applying to your dream residency program, or taking your electives abroad: plan ahead. This gives you drive. Purpose is fundamental in times that trigger anxiety.

Step 4: Volunteer in local medical community centers 

Volunteering will help you feel closer and more connected to your community. You will feel useful, helpful, and involved. It is by far the best form of catharsis I have come across.  

Osmosis illustration of a group of medical student volunteers.

Step 5: Do your best, and be forgiving of yourself

On the days when all of these other things do not work, remember that the battles you are fighting academically, mentally, and socially are changing our world for the long run. There will be tough days where you simply can’t function at a high level, or simply have to recharge. It’s all part of the process.

Final thoughts

Learning medicine will in no way drive us away from our community, and it will not stand in the way of revolution. Rather—just like in everything—there can be revolution in medicine as well. 

There is revolution in integrous science. Every single one of us is responsible for delivering this science and educating and being educated on the concepts of justice and inequality. It can be a tough road, but the journey is worth it—and the world desperately needs more doctors who envision a better future.

About Malak

Malak Helal is a third-year medical student studying at the University of Balamand in Beirut, Lebanon. She plays guitar and sings and enjoys drawing characters and sketches of the things she learns in medical school. She hopes that, someday, she will give back to her community and country as a doctor and educator. 

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