As I followed the purple gowns and kilted bagpipe players into NYU’s Skirball Center, I realized that one of the biggest challenges of my life was about to come to an end right where it all began.
Five years ago, after deciding to embark on this somewhat crazy and perhaps overly ambitious (and, yes, maybe impractical) decision to transition from travel writer to doctor of physical therapy, I walked into the same theater that I was about to get hooded in to begin my first science class as a 27-year-old post-baccalaureate pre-med student. A few months earlier, I had quit a “dream job” working as a travel writer and editor in Ecuador to return to NYC and pursue a career I had been quietly pondering for 7 years. For the first time since graduating college, I felt like I really knew what I wanted. But when I walked through those doors as an eager and excited travel writer, I never could have imagined what it would take to walk back out as a doctor.
This has, without a doubt, been the most challenging, most humbling, most intense, most difficult, most consuming, most frustrating, most exhausting, and most disorienting experience of my life – and that is coming from someone who has traveled alone to many parts of the world before iPhones even existed. I want, with all my verbal might, to capture this feeling, this moment, this sense of accomplishment in words, but I am not sure the words will do all the feelings justice.
To try and explain what I have learned – about the human body, about determination and grit, about life, about love, about the world around me, about people, about myself – would take up a book (oooh, and I’m working on one of those, so stay tuned!). Instead, I will just quickly summarize this journey. All I want is for it to be a reminder to anyone that is reading – maybe you’re younger than me, maybe you’re older than me – that no matter what challenge you are considering, you can climb that mountain. You can run that race. You can make that dream job happen. It might take sacrifice to levels you never imagined and it might mean giving up money and a chance to enjoy the other things you love, but if you are willing to laser focus on one goal, you can get there.
In many ways, I feel like I missed out on so much these past 5.5 years. I missed weddings, I missed baby showers, I missed birthdays, I missed old friends visiting for only 24 hrs, I missed art, I missed movies, I missed sporting events, I missed workouts at 6:30am with The Rise NYC (shoutout!). Going back to school affected relationships, it affected my self-identity, it put a major kink in the life I thought I would have in my 30s. After years of soul searching around the world as a 20-something, I thought I had finally arrived in the life that would stick. Then, once again, part of my plan crumbled and I had to stay focused on school while the ground I thought I was standing on fell out from underneath me – just when I thought that would never happen again. I missed gatherings of loved ones and opportunities to share important life events with people I care about in every way all the time. Every time I couldn’t come to a celebration or see a friend or be part of a person I care about’s important life event, a tiny chip was made in my heart. But in that same heart, I knew this was right. Arriving at that “knowing” took years, and I had to streamline my world to make it here. Thank you all for understanding.
I gave up one of the freest and most adventurous jobs a person can have and imprisoned myself, as it often felt, in a room with pages and pages of information I needed to somehow shove into my brain, no matter how bright the sun was shining outside and how tempting the desire to just run away, save thousands of dollars, and be free again might feel. I, like many of my classmates, gave up years of income (and fun!) to invest in a degree that would allow us all to become experts in human anatomy and movement. As doctors of physical therapy, we are dedicated to a life of easing other people’s pain, and helping people become stronger versions of themselves. There is so much more to say about what can be accomplished with this degree, but I’ll save that for another post.
A couple weeks ago, I ran my first ever half marathon. For me, this race was symbolic and significant in many ways that most people may never know. I became interested in becoming a physical therapist during my senior spring at Bowdoin College, when I injured my back after slipping on frost while carrying a rowing shell overhead. I ended up in PT instead of racing my last season as a member of the Bowdoin crew team, and found myself learning more about a healthcare field I always wanted to be a part of but never realized existed. Several years later, after dislocating my knee rushing up a slippery staircase in flip-flops (also after a row), I once again ended up in PT. Despite my awesome physical therapist, I couldn’t run without knee pain for 3 years. I loved running, and I would dream about it. A doctor told me to “find another sport.” I found another doctor.
Since that injury, I went from being able to run 10 minutes continuously to 4 miles comfortably, and fast. At the beginning of this year, I began to push my running boundaries and play around with the physical limits I thought I had. Armed with a new knowledge and understanding of the body and how to fine-tune it, I decided to sign up for the Brooklyn Half Marathon, and do whatever it took to cross that finish line. I went from never running more than 4 miles in October, to gradually pushing myself (with only 1 run weekly) to 11 miles. Like so many things I’ve experienced these past 5 years, I expected the race to be a challenge the whole way. I expected it to be painful and grueling and a struggle until the end. But, shockingly, it wasn’t.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around how comfortable I felt most of the race, because feeling comfortable is a luxury I have not had these past 5 years. And it is a feeling I did not expect during a half marathon. But just before the Coney Island boardwalk, I pushed for a final sprint. A lot of thoughts and emotions were going through me – memories, pride, relief. Just when I realized I may have begun my sprint too soon and I began to feel like all my energy and strength had been completely depleted, I heard a voice from the crowd scream: “TAVEL!!!!” Just when I was feeling lost and isolated in my pain, I saw my college friend yelling and waving to me. And then, after we somehow made eye contact, she said: “TAVEL – KEEP GOING. GO AND GET YOUR MEDAL!”
I don’t know where she came from, and how she knew that I would need her right then and there, but those words overwhelmed me. My eyes actually filled with tears of gratitude at that point. After running alone for so long, I was reminded that I was not alone at all.
I dug deep, and sprinted to the finish line. Not once during the entire race had I thought about the medal until then. Suddenly, it meant everything to me. When I crossed that finish line in Coney Island, I completed the longest run of my life. The timing coincided beautifully with the week I earned my doctorate. When I was finally allowed to stop running (after 1 hour and 49 minutes), a stranger put a medal around my neck.
I was alone, exhausted, and surrounded by people each with their own medal symbolizing their own journey to that finish line. That race from Prospect Park to Coney Island, those 13 miles, that medal will always have a special place in my heart. It was an end of a long run, but it also marks the beginning of many more, I hope.
Despite everything that went into this process – the blood, the sweat, and oh yes, lots of freakin’ tears – there is nothing sweeter in life than achieving a goal you set out to accomplish. I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a lot of beautiful places. And in all this traveling, I have learned that the highest mountains have the most beautiful views. The most painful races, have the most gratifying finish lines. The biggest sacrifices have the sweetest rewards.
This may be just one mountain in a large mountain range, but right now, way up here, everything looks beautiful. Thank you for climbing it with me.