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First Year PA

The First Race

Published December 2, 2013 10:48 AM by Harrison Reed
"There's no way you should look so calm doing that."

Early during the first year of PA school a handful of my classmates had met at the gym before our lectures. One of them looked over the numbers on the display of my treadmill and shook his head.

"If I was doing that right now, I would be in serious pain."

His comment turned up the corner of my mouth in a smile. He couldn't tell but, with the machine set at my race pace, my legs screamed with every stride. My lungs burned. A little stab of pain jabbed my side once and then again. But none of this showed on my face because of one key factor: experience.

I had been there before, hundreds of times. Years of running and dozens of races meant I know how to flirt with the edge of exhaustion. My body could shout at me, warn me of the danger, but it wouldn't cause panic. I knew when to press my pace and I knew how to rest in motion. I knew my abilities and, more importantly, I knew my limits.

New runners often start too fast. They are excited and confident. They haven't failed enough, haven't smacked into a wall down the stretch and watched the competition speed past. And when they near that limit, they panic. They waste the last of their energy and stop in their tracks.

New runners haven't mentally overpowered that physical limit, so they don't know that they can. They don't recognize the positive signals, sensations of "Yes, this works," because they haven't crossed enough finish lines. They can't predict a mistake because they haven't lost enough races.

I began this first year of my career like a new runner. I jumped at the blast of the starting pistol, ignorant to what lay ahead. Far too soon, I encountered obstacles that left me gasping for breath. Some were professional, the gaps in knowledge and expertise. Some were interpersonal, the potholes of workplace politics. Some were emotional, the search for satisfaction in daily tragedy.

The first several months I still doubted if I would make it as a critical care clinician. The occasional awkward stomp of my foot resonated louder than the more frequent precise ones. As my lungs burned from the steep learning incline of this first year the temptation to stop moving, to flop to the ground and attempt some easier path, nearly overpowered me.

Doubled over, hungry for air, I wondered where the finish line stood or how far I had come. I watched more experienced clinicians run past with ease. I thought I was in great shape, smart and well-trained, but they had something I lacked: experience.

I had forgotten a painful lesson I learned as a runner many years ago: the first race is always the hardest.

Recently, though, a strange thing happened. I struggle a little less. Small tasks that once baffled me became just a bit smoother and more natural. I stumbled less and found a better pace. I started to recognize the patterns before me, steered toward the successes I previously found and avoided some of my old mistakes. This somewhat more graceful stride reminded me of another lesson that I had taken for granted: you conserve more energy when you relax.

I started to become familiar with my route. Soon, the ominous twists and turns became more friendly territory. The role of perpetual newcomer I had played as a student in clinical rotations changed. Strangers knew my name. Some of them even asked for my advice and, inexplicably, took it. The road, once crowded with competitors, now seemed packed with teammates.

I know that I am still a novice and the real race is far from over. I have miles and miles to cover before I will feel comfortable with my role. But even the slightest wisp of experience is a wonderful gift. Because if, like my first race, I cross this first-year finish line with sore legs, burning lungs and bleeding knees, I will have passed the hardest miles of my career.


Heather, that is by far the most important reason I write these. Thank you for reading and even more for commenting. Keep working hard, we are in this together.


Harrison Reed January 13, 2014 11:11 PM

I just finished my first year as a NP in September 2013. I enjoyed reading your article. It makes me feel not so alone :-)

Heather, Urology - NP January 4, 2014 10:09 AM
Grove City OH

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