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We were passing through the blinding lights of New York City when the incident happened. I was in the third grade. My family and I were out celebrating my older sister’s college graduation. It happened slowly, like in a movie. We had taken a taxi downtown to this restaurant we’d been going to for as long as I could remember, but this time, we never made it. Shuffling along the crowded sidewalk, holding my mother’s hand, I suddenly felt her fingers slip from my grasp. I stood over my mother as she lay face down, convulsing in a full seizure. “Dad!” I called out to no avail. He was too far ahead of us. I slipped my hand into my mother’s pocket and grabbed her phone. “911, what’s your emergency?”

When the ambulance arrived, I still couldn’t find my father and sister, so I climbed into the back of the ambulance without them. At the hospital, I waited anxiously for some sort of news. My father and sister arrived shortly thereafter, once they received the message I’d sent from my mother’s phone. After hours of waiting, a doctor, whose presence immediately ushered in a sense of calm, told us that my mother was fine and that she was recovering in the back. An MRI revealed a mass on her brain, which they eventually confirmed was a benign cyst that needed to be removed. When the doctor brought us into the room, my mother was sleeping. Seeing that she was doing fine brought me tears of joy. When the doctor told us she was being prepped for surgery, I felt another wave of panic crash over me. Noticing the anxiety I was trying to hide, the doctor put his hand over my shoulder and commended me for my bravery, telling us that the surgery would be over before we knew it.

I remember returning to school in autumn when a teacher of mine had asked, “John, what do you want to be when you grow up?” “A doctor.” I replied immediately. As soon as I was eligible, I obtained my EMT license. This was during my first year of undergraduate studies. Due to my mother’s emergency, I felt that I “had what it takes” to act quickly in high-pressure situations. Despite seeing my fair share of urgent matters, luckily, most of the situations we responded to weren’t ticking time bombs. I did witness one elderly man pass away in the back of the vehicle after collapsing at a shopping centre. Until then, I’d always managed a stolid demeanor, which I was proud of, but in that instance, I shed a few tears. Then began a period of self-doubt and questioning whether I was cut out for a job in health care. I was lucky to have my colleagues, who had also witnessed the same event, explain that what I was feeling was natural and that I had nothing to be ashamed of.

I sought help from a counsellor to help me recover from the escalating general anxiety I was experiencing. As an EMT, I had trouble “turning off” the alertness of my nervous system, which was helpful when I was working, but not when I was off duty. I practiced mindfulness and learned to reduce unwanted symptoms when I was trying to relax at home. I wanted to contribute to the normalization of therapy, so I volunteered at the student wellness center, where I helped design programs and workshops to promote mental and physical health literacy and stress management. Working with other students who cared deeply about dismantling the mental health stigma taught me the value of community and shared ideas, resources, and emotions. When I returned to work as an EMT, I felt much closer to my colleagues, whom I no longer saw as having the emotional capacity of unfeeling robots.

Throughout my experiences as an EMT, I’ve seen how incredibly quickly and diligently first responders work. Physical and mental health emergencies need passionate and emotionally open individuals to provide care. There was one particular patient named Samantha who had called 911 due to a mental health crisis. I remember her very clearly and think of her often. When my team arrived at the scene, she was in a state of inert dejection. We told her that we were going to get her the help she needed and that she had the support of our entire community to lean on. I had asked her to take my word for it, and she agreed. This felt like a significant achievement for me as well as for the patient.

I continue on my medical school journey because I care deeply about the health of the people in my community. The day that my mother fell ill changed me profoundly, for the better; it was terrifying, but I’m grateful for the people who were there to support her to a full recovery. There are, as I’ve borne witness to, many instances when people don’t get the help they need quickly enough. I’m determined to become a medical professional who can act proficiently and without hesitation in times of need. I would be honored to inherit the compassion and trusting qualities of the professionals I’ve had the privilege of witnessing and working with.

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