Second-year medical student Marthena Phan is living proof of the old adage, “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Marthena is not shy about sharing her experience of repeating the first year of medical school. She embraces it– it made her “more confident, resilient, compassionate, and prepared to face challenges.” And she hopes it inspires others facing adversity.
Her candid essay has appeared in KevinMD, MedPage Today, and AAMC Aspiring Doc Diaries, with additional publications in the works.
On a hot and humid July afternoon, the white coat ceremony for the class of 2025 at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University in Miami was in full swing.
As I walked onstage, slipped into my brand-new white coat, and accepted the coveted “medical student” title I had spent years working for, I thought about why I was embarking on this journey: my family of Vietnam War refugees, my brother who has autism, and my father who suddenly passed away 5 years ago after dedicating his entire adult life to securing his family’s safety and happiness. I was excited but also aware that medical school is not for the faint of heart. However, I still felt ready for the challenge, because after all, I had made it this far.
What could possibly go wrong?
Within the first week, the excitement I felt at my white coat ceremony quickly faded as I became overwhelmed and fell behind. Even with seemingly endless hours of studying, I was still doing poorly. I was exhausted every day and neglecting my well-being. For the first time in my life, my hard work was not paying off. On top of that, I lived at home with my brother, who was prone to sudden behavioral outbursts that my mother and I had to drop everything we were doing for. However, I hesitated to seek help, because I had never struggled so much in school before and it seemed like all my classmates were doing well.
I started to believe that I did not deserve to be in medical school. I kept pushing with the hope that things would improve over time, but unfortunately, I failed my first class at the end of the semester. I spent my entire winter break studying for the remediation exam, which I did not pass by only one question. Consequently, I was called to the promotions committee to explain everything that had led to these failures. I was permitted to stay with my class and eventually reached the first block of the second year.
Finally, it seemed like things were improving. I was not only doing better academically but also fully immersing myself in student life. But underneath the surface, history was repeating itself as I began to fall behind once again, which culminated in a panic attack during a simulation session where it seemed like everyone in my group except me knew everything. I ultimately failed the block by just 1%.
After being notified of this course failure, I continued going to school as if everything were normal while trying to convince the promotions committee to let me continue with my cohort for a second time. I then contracted COVID-19 and had to recover at home while also waiting for a decision and studying for an upcoming midterm. However, the day before I was scheduled to return to school, I was given the devastating news that I would have to start medical school over from the very beginning. I took a leave of absence for the rest of the semester. Within hours of receiving the decision, I was no longer an actively enrolled medical student.
After being told that I would have to repeat my first year, I felt ashamed, alone, and like I had let everyone in my life down. I was angry at myself for allowing myself to hit rock bottom and repeatedly questioned why I was even on this grueling journey. I learned who my real friends were as word and speculation spread about my sudden vanishment. Not only did I start to believe that I would never become a doctor, but I did not know what the future held for me or even who I was anymore. At times, I wanted to simply disappear.
With time, support from my loved ones and upperclassmen who had gone through the same or similar experiences, therapy, and reflection on all my mistakes and whether medicine was still the right path for me, I accepted my fate and started to prepare for my return to medical school. I self-studied for the upcoming block and researched how other medical students who repeated a year overcame their challenges and achieved success in their programs. Before I knew it, summer break was over, and it was time for me to join the class of 2026.
When I first returned to medical school, I was afraid of judgment from both my old and new classmates. Fortunately, I had a few friends in the same situation, which helped me feel less alone, and most of my peers were ultimately very accepting and supportive. I created a consistent study plan that allowed me to master the material, prioritized my well-being, and adopted a growth mindset. I also learned how to set clear boundaries with my mother about when I needed to step away from being a daughter and caregiver to study for my classes. Within a few weeks, I was consistently doing well on quizzes and exams; by the end of the year, I not only passed but excelled in all my classes!
Remediating first year, albeit daunting, allowed me to regain confidence in my ability to succeed in medical school, build a stronger knowledge foundation, enjoy more of what I am learning, and rediscover my love for medicine and why I am on this journey. I now feel like I am thriving instead of just surviving, and that I do belong here after all.
I have also realized that in the class of 2025, I was settling. I thought that I was only capable of barely passing my classes and that I did not have to try to excel in medical school but rather just get through it. As a result, I was not properly learning the material nor living up to my full potential. Now in the class of 2026, I am no longer just scraping by – I have rediscovered that I am truly capable of being great.
Although my medical school journey has been tumultuous, I am now more confident, resilient, compassionate, and prepared to face any additional challenges that may arise throughout my career. I am also committed to sharing my story so that I can help other medical students going through the same experience and reduce the stigma surrounding academic failure in medical education. More than ever, I am sure that I will achieve my dream of becoming Dr. Phan.
Whenever I have a moment of doubt, I remind myself that:
I am strong.
I am going to be OK.
I am making my loved ones proud.
I am going to be a great physician.
But most importantly, I am still here.