My undergraduate progress as a Science student was, shall we say, rocky. Some of this might potentially be excused by saying I was bored and disappointed that I didn’t achieve the required grades to enter straight into medicine from high school. This, however, would be to deny the fact that my undergraduate science career was subverted by an inordinate fascination in the consumption of barley based alcoholic beverages.
My Uni studies progressed quite well in first year – passing everything easily, with less than ideal study habits. Lectures took up valuable time that could be otherwise spent recovering from hangovers. Most subjects were dispatched by studying my butt off in swat vac.
This approach worked relatively well until the second half of second year. The house of cards that had been propped up by borrowed notes, educated guesses as to what might or might not be on the exam and litres upon litres of percolated coffee – all came tumbling down. The desperation that my adolescent brain sank to in the lead up to this blow out can be summed up in one salient episode…….
Advanced zoology laboratory studies was a Friday afternoon class and that alone should have been it’s death knell. Unfortunately, I didn’t withdraw from the subject by the nominated deadline and I was stuck with it. It should have been a relatively easy subject to pass – if I had actually gone to any of the lab sessions. But, given the time and day of the subject – I didn’t. As the end of the semester drew near I came to the somewhat horrifying realisation that … (1) I had only gone to a handful of classes and (2) I did not possess anything resembling a completed workbook. The workbook was meant to include an array of diagrams and notes detailing all the classes and what we had examined under our inquisitive gaze. It was from this workbook that I was supposed to study for the upcoming practical exam. Thanks to incredible sleuth-like investigations I was able to track down the friend of a friend of a friend who happened to have done the subject the year before. He graciously allowed me to borrow his workbook. I feverishly copied it word for word, diagram for diagram, note for note. I studied like there was no tomorrow and in the fullness of time I stood outside the exam room lined up with others who had actually participated in the process of attending classes. I stuck out like a sore thumb. There was only a dozen or so students in the class and most of them were looking at me like I was a Martian. It was obvious that the majority did not recognise me. That didn’t stop me from sidling up to one of them to make idle chit chat as the start of the exam approached.
“So, do you think they’ll have the rabbit dissection in the exam?” I was kinda hoping they would because I thought that class (which I hadn’t attended) looked pretty easy.
“Pardon,” was the reply.
“The rabbit prac. Do you think it will be in the exam?”
“We didn’t have a rabbit dissection. They didn’t have enough to go around. We did rats.”
Given the level of despair that overtook my body at that moment it is difficult to estimate the amount of sheer grit that was required for me to file into the examination room and then participate in a process that, for me, was beyond redemption. To this day I wonder what thoughts went through the head of the lecturer who had the onerous task of marking my workbook, complete with a very rabbit-like sketch of a rat dissection. It is entirely possible that to this day, my workbook is enshrined in a frame on a wall in the Zoology Department.
All of this led to a number of “difficult” discussions with my parents over the Christmas holidays. The first took place on the day that the results were to be published in the newspaper. Two out of 7 results were listed. I had failed 5 out of the 7 subjects. The crying began. It stopped maybe a week later. That night over the dining table my Mum theorised that maybe I had gotten a girl pregnant. My Dad wondered about the use of drugs. Through reddened eyes I repeated the mantra “I just drank too much beer.” They eventually believed me.
I was kicked out of Uni but managed to get back in, and over the next couple of years stumbled, walked and then sprinted towards the finish line. I even got into the Honours program and there I flourished. First class Honours was the result and I then started a PhD. After a year and a half of slaving away at a topic that I never really loved I decided to reapply to do Medicine. I told my parents when they were visiting Brisbane (from Townsville, 1400km away). We met up at my grandparent’s place. We were standing outside chatting as the sun sunk towards the horizon and I blurted out my plan, afraid of what they might say. My Dad, ever the thinker and logical one, asked how I was planning to achieve this “dream”. I had a plan to work for a couple of years to get enough money to get me through to third year and then I could get a rural scholarship with Queensland Health. He patiently waited for me to finish. He paused and then said, “Well, that’s never going to work”. My heart sunk momentarily until he finished his sentence “We’ll give you a hand until you get that scholarship.” Gob smacked is an understatement as to how I felt when he said those words. I had quite literally wasted a not-small chunk of their money as I fumbled and stumbled my way through my Science degree. Here they were, prepared to take me on again. Even with my grandfather commenting at the dinner table inside “I’ve been waiting to find out when you would get a REAL job” you couldn’t take the smile off my face.
I applied for entry. The end of the year came around and offers went out. First round – nothing. Second round – nothing. Third round – still nothing. End of the road. I had quit my PhD. I had no job. I was dependent on my parents - again. Could it get any worse…… Uhm – yes it could.
February 12th 1989 – my brother was killed in a car accident. The world went black. What I was going to do with the rest of my life didn’t seem important any more. But then, less than 24 hours later, as I was struggling to come to terms with his loss – a yellow envelope arrived from the University of Queensland. Inside was the offer that I had given up on. A fourth-round offer. No-one had even heard of that before. How does that happen?
A combination of joy and sorrow swirled around in my head. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry or laugh. I’d had to ring my father the night before on his 54th birthday to relay the news of his first-borns death. Here I was ringing him again with news of a totally different kind. Less than a week later I was sitting in a lecture theatre taking notes on my first day studying Medicine. It was quite a ride.
So, is it okay to fail sometimes? You could say that it’s okay to fail because “At least you tried.” In my situation that clearly wasn’t the case when studying science. In my case, however, failure did teach me a very valuable lesson and that lesson was that “Failing feels terrible”. The days and weeks after getting kicked out of Science were so bad that I just didn’t want to go there again. I had let my parents down. I had let myself down. It was just horrific. So, in medicine – I worked my butt off. The first five and a half years of medicine I didn’t get a Grade Point Average below 6 (out of 7). I was the best damn medical student I could be and in the first two years of Medicine I also finished off my PhD work as a Masters in Science.
My parents did support me through the first three years of Medicine. I told them it was a loan and they dutifully recorded every single cost for those three years in a ledger. At the end of the 6 year course I went home for Christmas and they gave me that ledger. Written inside the front cover were my father’s handwritten words “Paid in Full”. They refused to take a cent from me.
My Dad’s now 82. My Mum turns 80 this year. Last year I wrote them a letter thanking them for believing in me and giving me that second chance that I’m still not sure I deserved but awfully glad that I did. My final paragraph in that letter seems to be a fitting way to end this blog.
“I have sometimes wondered whether there is some message or special meaning in the fact that the day that I received my offer of a place in medicine from the University of Queensland was the day after Bruce was killed in that car accident. Was it a case of one door closing, another opening? Was it fate? Was it God tapping me on the shoulder and saying - wake up sonny? Was it just another twist and turn in that crazy meandering journey that is life? I don’t know. I don’t really care. I am just aware that I still too often forget that our time here on Earth is short and we should grab it with both hands and try and make the most of it.”