A PERSONAL JOURNEY
What can happen when we leave our comfort zone?
Fernando Mejia, MD
Editor’s note: This story exemplifies several capabilities of the Lead self, Engage others, and Achieve results domains of the LEADS framework as well as disruptive innovation on a personal level.
Everyone has a comfort zone, a mental or physical state (orin some cases a combination) where we feel 100% in control. We usually create a comfort zone unconsciously by developing certain habits and skills that allow us to know exactly what needs to be done to obtain a desired outcome.
Although there is nothing wrong with living in a comfort zone, have you asked yourself what could happen if you left it? It’s worthwhile to purposely challenge ourselves and explore beyond the boundaries of our comfort zone, as we might face experiences that can broaden our viewpoint, understanding, or meaning of certain things in life.
Taking that first step
Thirteen years ago, I left my comfort zone. After almost a decade in a rewarding general practice in Colombia, where I graduated from medical school, I decided to emigrate to Canada. My goal was to have a completely different life experience, and what could be better than going to a new country where even the language was going to be a challenge?
I remember arriving in Calgary in the middle of winter with my wife and five-year-old daughter. We chose Calgary because some friends told us that it was booming at that time, and there were lots of opportunities for newcomers. They said Alberta was a province so rich that the government was sharing the surplus, sending cheques to people. My friends set my expectations so high that I did not think twice about it. Now, I realize how important that was, as having high expectations was the main reason to move on when I had to start from scratch.
Fortunately, what they said turned out to be true and, just a week after arriving, I was working! As a matter of fact, I had two jobs! As a doctor, you may ask? Well, not even close: I was hired full-time at a retail store (working in shipping and delivery) and part-time at a convenience store (whose manager was a foreign doctor too). To be honest, those were not the kind of jobs I was expecting to have, but I needed to support my family, and I could not work on anything related to health care as I did not have a licence or adequate English communication skills. Although I did not know it at the time, the road back to my medical career was a long one.
The long road
Time went by and, after many English courses and job experiences, I started to improve my language skills — still a work in progress. My continued search for something better allowed me to find a job with a group of ophthalmologists, working as an ophthalmic technician, the person in charge of making a visual assessment of patients before they saw a specialist.
In that office, all the technicians were international medical graduates (IMGs); one of them an ophthalmologist. That was where I learned about the Canadian medical licensure process and how difficult it was to obtain a medical licence. Although the income was not the best, I decided to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by this job, such as interacting with the medical staff and patients, performing visual exams, creating medical notes, and improving my communication skills in a professional environment.
As some of my co-workers were active in the licensure process, I asked for some guidance and opted to start my application process with the resolution that I would persist until I obtained a medical licence. I worked during the day and spent evenings at the public library preparing for the Medical Council of Canada (MCC) examinations. After three years of failing these exams multiple times and spending a significant amount of borrowed money, I passed and went on to apply to a medical residency program through the Canadian Resident Matching Service (CaRMS).
Although passing the MCC exams was challenging, the hardest part of the process was getting matched through CaRMS, because the number of spots available to IMGs is small, it is very competitive, and every province has its own restrictions and conditions. Top
As my line of credit reached its limit, I realized I had to find a better job. I took advantage of my previous work experience in the pharmaceutical industry and found a full-time job as marketing coordinator in a multinational health insurance company. Although this increased my income, the downside was that I was going to be out of the health care field. It was a tough decision to make, but the well-being of my family was more important than my personal goal. I was not going to quit, but somehow I had to find a way to work during the day and continue studying and volunteering in the evening, to work with local doctors, and to stay close to medical practice.
After a few years working in that insurance company, I received approval to work more hours a day, so that I could have one day off each week to dedicate to “observerships,” one of which was in a supervised clinical practice that also allowed me to obtain letters of reference, a crucial component of the CaRMS application.
I applied for residency through CaRMS consistently for four years with no result, not even an interview! Every year, I struggled to fulfill the requirements and pay the application fees. I would be lying if I said I didn’t consider quitting. I was very fortunate to have my wife’s support every time I failed, and, after dealing with frustration, I always tried one more time. Although this was difficult, I had put so much effort, time, and money into the process that I could not give up.
Finally in 2015, after five years applying through CaRMS, I got an interview, which I prepared for with all my heart and soul, knowing this was an all-or-nothing day. I spent hours visualizing myself doing a great interview, responding appropriately to any type of question, and obtaining the desired outcome. When I finished that interview, I had that inner satisfaction of knowing that I truly did my best, but the competition was tough because there were other candidates with better backgrounds and experience than mine.
I patiently waited two months for the CaRMS matching process, and asked my wife to be with me when the results were announced. My daughter, who was always aware of my challenging journey, wanted to be there too. At 10 a.m. on match day, the three of us got together in front of the computer, holding hands. With mixed feelings of excitement and fear, I clicked on the CaRMS link to find that I had matched with the Public Health and Preventive Medicine program at the University of Calgary.
It was one of the happiest days of my life, as I reached my goal after eight years of pure persistence from writing my first MCC exam until getting matched. I still remember my daughter shouting, “Dad, we made it!” Feeling that happiness was enough to make up for all eight years of struggles.
Take the first step on your journey
In the three years since then, despite many obstacles and challenges, I have been able to move forward enjoying every moment of my residency training. I have learned so much from many people including preceptors, teachers, fellow residents, and patients. I have realized that the most important thing is not to reach the goal; what really matters is the person you become during the journey.
I wanted to share my story to encourage you to get out of your comfort zone. I challenge you to leave your fears aside and embark on the adventure of your life. Whether this is starting a new venture, moving to another place to start a new life, or taking that trip you have delayed for years, I want you to make the decision and take the first step now!
Think about this: If not now, when? If not you, who? Once you take that first step, your life will never be same!
This is dedicated to my wife, Maria, to my daughter, Marianna, and to the IMGs who made the decision to leave their comfort zone and pursue a better future in this wonderful country.
Fernando Mejia is completing his third year of residency training in the Public Health and Preventive Medicine program at the University of Calgary. He is also doing a master’s degree in medical education at the same institution.
A version of this article was originally published in the November-December 2017 issue of Alberta Doctors’ Digest, the flagship publication of the Alberta Medical Association.