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From Medicine to Trains - Cathay's Journey

Cathay

Train Driver
Emeritus
[Note: this was originally posted as a Blog, but due to complications in the site upgrade process, it hasn't been viewable as a blog since the upgrade. I believe Isuru was working on retrieving the blog and re-posting it as an Article, but since I have the original content saved in a word document, this might save some work retrieving it. Here it is, re-published as an Article.]

1 – Prologue: It’s Been a While

I was asked if I could write a blog.

Writing a blog. Writing. Somehow “writing” has become a slightly unfamiliar concept.

It’s been a while since I wrote something that wasn’t a functional work email or a job application, and it’s been a while since I last browsed MSO regularly.

It’s been a while since I was a medical student, too.

Some might say that this could’ve been prevented. That THEY would’ve seen this coming, that Otago could’ve had interviews for medicine, that clinical medicine should’ve been integrated into the earlier parts of the programme. They are, as we call it, the “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve” brigade.

The fact remains, that I was a medical student, and I am not anymore.

That’s not because I graduated and became a doctor, by the way. I didn’t.

I didn’t finish my medical degree. Somehow it still hurts a little to say that. Perhaps that’s my pride, perhaps I should “localize” this pain and mark it for surgical removal.

Hah, listen to me try to talk the medical talk.

“What happened??!” I can almost hear a million voices crying out, almost as though I’m sensing a great disturbance in the Force.

“Parents made me go there, I didn’t like it, so I quit.” – this is the simple version I tell people at work when they first find out about my past life as a medical student, and demand to know why on earth I’m working there.

“That’s not a satisfactory answer!” I sense, not nearly as many voices this time. (I hear this in the Han Solo “That’s not how the Force works!” voice.)

The rest of this text, which might just become a lengthy ramble, aims to provide a more comprehensive answer for those that weren’t satisfied with the short version. Fair warning: this may get complicated.

I left medical school during the second half of 5th year. By this point I had become disengaged and disinterested with medicine. I had my own goals and dreams in life, and medicine had nothing to do with them. Perhaps the worst part, certainly the part that drove my increasing distress at the time, was that no one took me seriously when I broached the topic of “maybe this isn’t me” or “maybe I could do something else?”

“What caused you to become that way?” I sense you ask, and the answer is “it’s multifactorial.” That, by the way, would be an excellent on-the-spot (I-don’t-know) answer to “what causes [insert disease here]”, provided it’s not a single hereditary cause like Cystic Fibrosis or Huntington’s Disease. That answer would only buy you a few seconds, though, before the follow up question “list some of the known factors” – and with these precious few seconds, I shall start telling my story before the next outcry sends another disturbance in the Force.


2 – Mother’s Dream

Yes, medicine was my mother’s dream, first and foremost. She wanted to be a doctor, much more than I did. After much persuasion, her father (my grandfather) promised to sign her up for medicine.

He reneged on the promise.

For context, at the end of high school in China, one would sit the National College Entrance Examination, the score from which university admission is determined. A matching-type system ensues whereby the candidate’s parents would discuss with teachers and put forth preferences for tertiary institutions and courses, and each course in each institution would then take the highest scoring candidates who put forward preferences for that course, until the course is full.

Grandad had a few reasons for not letting mother study medicine. One excuse he gave was “oh doctors have to work night shifts” – and thus invokes the long tradition of fathers not wanting their little girl to have to travel to and from work alone at night. But I later found out that one of his brothers also went into medical school, and I never found out exactly what happened, but in short, he didn’t finish it. With this bias onboard, grandad sent mother to study Food Technology, where she met my father, and “lived happily ever after”.

In the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, there was a wave of unemployment hitting China. Mother had to yield her cushy job (that grandad arranged) at the Animal Feeds Institute and take up a job with Nestlé. Being a foreign company, she was required to take English courses, where she met people taking said English courses for the purpose of immigration. Grandma, being a bit of a matriarch like Lady Olenna, got the idea that “wouldn’t it be great if I could brag to my friends about my daughter living overseas” and the idea of immigration was born.

The medicine dream never died, though; and it only became transferred to the next generation, which was just me, because I was born under the one-child policy. From the age of 7, when I showed some interest in a medical documentary (featuring a laparoscopic cholecystectomy operation), there was a strong push for me to study science and go towards medicine.

This largely ignored the field where I showed the strongest interest since I was 3-4 years old: transport. Heavy transport.


3 – Planes, Trains, and Automobiles


In my early days we lived in part of a house (a rare thing in China – apartment living was/is the norm), next to a level crossing. Two or three times a day a “train” would come – I later learned that this was actually just an “industrial shunt”, a small locomotive pushing a few wagons of coal into the power plant grandad worked at, and I would jump up and down and demand to be taken outside to watch. In other words, I was pretty interested in trains as a child.

It wasn’t just trains, though. Growing up, my favourite toys, and the things I would sketch, were trucks and trains. I was so obsessed with the big machines, in retrospect I’d be concerned and asking questions about autistic traits. So, at ages 3-10 I was obsessed with trucks and trains.

At age 10 I arrived in New Zealand and found the local railway scene to be somewhat lacking. Christchurch featured maybe a dozen or so freight trains a day, mostly at night, and only 2-3 touristy passenger trains, whereas in my hometown Tianjin there was a long-distance passenger train every 5-10 minutes. At this point I got into the local buses scene and became obsessed with them for the next couple of years (again with the autistic traits!), and was convinced for a couple of years that I wanted to be a bus driver, much to the dismay of my parents and grandparents.

Through my early teenage years, I became interested in aviation and large commercial airplanes. The wish to become an airline pilot came with it. I went on to do more research, though, and in NZ the employment prospects of a low-hours commercial pilot straight out of flight school, without any personal or family connections in the industry, was not encouraging, and after the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2008 when the airlines were not doing that well, I was left thinking about other avenues.

A brief attempt at applying for Air Traffic Control (where they pre-select from school and reserve a place in training until the candidate turns 20) did not end with success, and I entered Year 13, my final year at high school, slightly lost as to what to do in life. After months of soul-searching and research, I formulated a career plan to achieve two of my lifelong dreams in sequence: become a bus driver (somehow), do that for a few years, and then try to get into the railways and drive trains.

With a bulletproof (hah!) career plan in hand, I had absolutely no clue as to how to even start. Perhaps in retrospect I should have done what the other young, passionate bus drivers (I’ve met a few) did, and pester the bus companies to start working in their refuelling bay until I can get my bus licence. But, as an Asian kid with good grades at school, my parents, my teachers, and most importantly my peers, all assumed that I would go off to university and do some clever thing or another. I caved to this pressure. I arrived at the conclusion that I should go to university to study something, to satisfy the parent/teacher/peer pressure, and started looking at University of Canterbury.


4 – Medical School?

How I actually ended up in medicine was either hilarious or tragic, depending on your viewpoint. During year 13, I developed a bit of a crush on someone at school (it didn’t go anywhere, by the way), and he was one of many wanting to go to Otago and study medicine. When I learned he was going to sit the UMAT (previously self-explanatory but future med kids might only know it as the precursor to UCAT – and in my day the results were valid for two years so you could sit it in Year 13 and use it at the end of Health Science First Year for admission to medicine), I made the spur of the moment decision to imitate him, sit UMAT, and go to Otago.

Needless to say, mother was most impressed with this turn of events (she didn’t even ask why) and was greatly supportive.

UMAT went well for me, better than for my crush (though I don’t think he did that badly). Being placed in the 98th percentile, this was a promising result I could keep, and skip the drama of re-sitting UMAT during Health Science First Year.

Off to the infamous Hell-Sci First Year I went, and there I became a regular patron of MSO, and met frootloop and Ben (NZ Ben) in person when they, uh, stalked me to the Science Library – a tale for another time.

Here’s the soul-crushing irony: I got myself into medicine thinking I’d keep seeing my crush that way, and he went into dentistry instead. Perhaps that’s why it’s called a “crush” – because it crushes you emotionally when it doesn’t work out.

At that point, thanks to my high school friends being in the same class, and my wee MSO family (froot, Ben, Voldy etc), I figured I may as well go along with it. After all, I dreaded the idea of job applications and CVs and networking and “omg what am I gonna do with my life” and all that, so if I could just go to medical school for another 5 years (totalling 6) and seemingly “end up with a job” that would be great.

I suppose in retrospect I went into medicine for all the wrong reasons. I suppose the “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve” brigade would say an interview might’ve weeded me out. But I suppose being quite motivated to get into medicine, I think I would’ve simply done enough interview prep to get by. As the great Ozzy Man Reviews says it, “the power of boners trumps all” (exact wording not guaranteed.)


5 – Pre-Clinical Years (Early Learning in Medicine)

Perhaps it was pride, perhaps it was the social circle, or perhaps I should give Otago more credit; but I was an interested, engaged, and excited little medical student in years 2 and 3. The preclinical years (Early Learning in Medicine, ELM, as Otago calls it) were everything I hoped medical school to be: anatomy labs, medical textbooks, learning about the human body, learning how it all goes wrong, how to diagnose things, how to treat things, and, yes, how to use a stethoscope. I was also a great fan of Clinical Skills classes, where a shy, awkward kid like myself (possibly with a mild touch of autism, he says wearing the retrospect-o-scope) can learn fair bit about social skills and human interaction, with the matter described more explicitly and presented in writing, rather than by trial and error. (I do realize most of Clinical Skills focused on teaching systematic history taking and physical examination – but the odd gems of social wisdom stuck with me.)

Life outside of class was great, too. Despite having more contact hours than most university courses, the ELM course operated on a 9am-6pm basis, with lectures, tutorials, and labs organized into 2-hour slots (with 1pm-2pm guaranteed lunch.) There were four streams (A1, A2, B1, B2), and when there wasn’t a class scheduled for your stream, that 2-hour slot was study/home/whatever time. I wasn’t much for social occasions, or for partying, but I did manage to go to the odd thing here and there and “opened up” a lot more during these two years.

I really did enjoy the ELM years.

But I must admit, after working hard in HSFY and getting into medicine, I then reverted to my high school self. I played video games and browsed the internet (including a fair amount of time spent on MSO in the Chatbox, or as we called it, Hatbox) rather than working hard on studying and that. I always did rely too much on sharp wits and good memory rather than hard work. Perhaps this was the beginning of my downfall – not at the time though because there were only the big final exams at the end of each year, which were scored on a 1-5 system (1 = clear fail, 2 = bare fail, 3 = bare pass, 4 = clear pass, 5 = potential distinction) where number 4 (Clear Pass) was not too difficult to obtain, and we adapted “Cs get degrees” to say “3s get MBChBs”, so life wasn’t too difficult.

Soon enough ELM was wrapping up, and halfway through 3rd year we were given the choice between Dunedin, Christchurch, and Wellington for ALM – Advanced Learning in Medicine, otherwise known as clinical years. I missed Christchurch dearly (I insist to this day that I’m a Christchurch boy), and luckily for me, my high school friends (also from Christchurch) and even my MSO friends frootloop (also from Christchruch) and Ben were going to Christchurch too, so I was in good company. (Voldey why you ditch us? :sadface: )


6 – Clinical Years (Advanced Learning in Medicine)

The ALM years weren’t nearly so kind, though. Initially, I was excited to be wandering around a hospital ward (yes, stethoscope around my neck), I was excited to be in an operating theatre, and I was most excited to scrub in and help in whatever meagre way I could. But slowly, it dawned on me that I wasn’t excited for the true work of medicine. I wasn’t excited to sit in on a GP clinic (bar the odd practical thing like measuring blood pressure or giving a flu shot), I wasn’t excited to try and figure out what was wrong with the patient and how to fix it, and I was most unexcited about the tricky interactions like breaking bad news, or difficult/uncooperative patients. (Luckily, as students we weren’t often involved with the tricky situations.)

Did I want to do something hands-on like nursing instead? Am I uninterested in the clinical, human side of medicine? Was this all a big spectacle to me, fun to observe but not to take part?

Fourth year was a confusing time.

Around the same time, I had rediscovered my childhood interests. I became aware of (and got hooked on) Euro Truck Simulator 2, and OMSI bus simulator; I had a Logitech G27 steering wheel, too, and escaped my reality with long hours at the wheel, cruising around the pretend-city or pretend-countryside. “Driving” became my main form of procrastination, and every night was a late night because I’d get home, have dinner and “drive away” only to realize about midnight that I needed to do some homework or some prep or work on some assignment. Then get 5 hours of sleep before getting up at 6am to do it all again.

I was becoming obsessed with trucks and buses once again and had started to catalogue the buses of Christchurch again, like I had as a 12-year-old (and after 9 years, those spreadsheets needed updating!) I embraced public transport and took the bus to and from the hospital. Quite often, the bus ride to and from the hospital were the happiest moments of my day. (In retrospect, this was a sad state of affairs!)

At the same time, perhaps unsurprisingly, the thoughts of wanting to become a truck driver or bus driver instead were entering my head and taking up quite a position.

The intensity of medical school itself was ramping up, too. The surgical rotation brought with it our first encounter with long hours and evening work: General Surgery acutes (on-call) days and ED shifts saw us coming and going as late as 11pm, but that paled in comparison to the longest day I’ve ever worked (by which I mean “attended”). I had arrived shortly after 7am for ward rounds and our team was on acutes, and about 10pm an urgent case was coming in with a severely unwell patient from out of town. Emergency surgery was about to be performed so I opted to stay and observe. What was meant to be an 11pm operation started at 1am, and about 3.30am things were finishing up and I was told to go home. I slept past my alarm and barely made ward rounds the next day – and after rounds my two buddies on the same team (who went home at the much more advisable time of 10pm the night before) sent me home to catch up on sleep, and I didn’t feel very well for a couple of days after. This was the first sign that I wasn’t coping with what I was trying to put myself through. (To this day I don’t know why I was so stubborn and tried so hard.)

With my distaste for clinical matters, I started looking at non-clinical specialties. Following an attendance at a post-mortem, I was greatly fascinated by their work, and slowly became convinced that my medical specialty of choice would be anatomical pathology. I began to take extra interest in anatomical pathology teaching, bought a copy of Big Robbins, and really learned a few things about histology.

Mother didn’t take well to my intention of go into pathology, though. “Why can’t you be a clinical doctor?” She demanded. “I didn’t raise you to be a pathologist or a radiologist, I want you to do a clinical specialty… and not GP!” That conversation did not end well, with me hanging up the phone and throwing it at my pillow.

With some luck, I managed to survive the Gen Surg rotation, and continued onto the much more relaxed Public Health run. At this time the Summer Studentship projects came out – and some thought had to be put into what to do over the coming summer holidays.

The time between ALM4 and ALM5 were the last lot of summer holidays, ever. This meant they had to be spent wisely, because there wasn’t much of a gap between ALM5 and ALM6 (Trainee Intern year), and from there on it was going to be working adult life. For future’s sake (and for the CV’s sake) I managed to secure a Summer Studentship (research project), but a friend with whom I had discussed my wanting to drive a heavy vehicle for a job also suggested I should try and do that during this last lot of summer holidays.


7 – Bus? Driver? Bus. Driver.

I had always thought it wasn’t possible to become a bus driver until the age of 30 (or at least 25 – which I wouldn’t hit until well after I was due to graduate). Life found a way to prove me wrong, though, for one Sunday night I was going home on the bus after a study session, and looked at the bus driver thinking “holy sh*t this guy is my age.”

Shamefully, I didn’t work up the courage to ask him his age. But I did wonder that out loud the next day at lunch, which was met with an eyeroll by the Group Mum* and “oh stop talking about buses… Just go and email Go Bus or something.”

That was a life-changing sentence.

[*: the “group mum” of our group was an “Other” category entrant, a graduate with 5+ years’ work experience, or a “super-grad” as we called it; she was a pharmacist for a number of years and gained entry to the medicine programme, she brought life experience and wisdom to us young’uns, as intended by the design of the “Other” category.]

I found a Go Bus recruitment advert on Trademe, dusted off the old CV, and sent through an email introducing myself and asking if I can apply to be a part-timer. Two hours later a reply came through (at 8pm at night, of all times) saying “yes that’s all okay and we’re happy to have you, I’ll have our driver trainer call you in the morning.”

I was stunned and ecstatic. Did I just get myself a job driving buses, just like that?

You bet I did.

And the rest, they say, is history. I finished 4th year, got my bus licence, and went on to juggle bus driving with my Summer Studentship. (I do feel slightly guilty because that balance tilted in favour of buses towards the end.)

My Summer Studentship project involved working in a lab like my mother. Perhaps not exactly like her work, but it was in a lab, nonetheless. Making up growth medium, growing ovarian tumour cells in the growth media, adding ascites fluid from patients to some, adding a protein kinase inhibitor to some others, letting them grow for longer, harvesting them, counting cells, and preparing them for the eventual analysis on an antibody array to assess tyrosine kinase receptor activation. True, hands-on lab work, the kind of research project I always wanted.

Like medicine, though, the novelty was exciting, but it eventually wore off.

By comparison, my early days of driving a bus came with a level of joy and excitement I don’t know if I can ever replicate. Perhaps it was because I’ve wanted to be a bus driver since I was 11, perhaps it was because I was driving on bus routes I’ve known since I was 11, or perhaps it was just that I’d been watching bus drivers work and change over for nearly a whole year (there was a crew change spot between my flat and the hospital) and finally it was me getting in the seat, putting my cashbox into the holder, logging on at the ticket machine, checking my running sheet, putting the bus in gear, releasing the park brake, closing the doors, and driving away. I loved every moment of it.

I loved every moment of it so much, that I began to resent other parts of my life. Having to go to the med school to do my Summer Studentship work. The thought of going back to medicine. I dreaded going back to medical school after a taste of true freedom and happiness.


8 – The Bus-Driving Medical Student

One day, I found the courage to broach the subject with my summer studentship supervisor. To his credit, he did understand and appreciate how happy I felt, but he warned me that it might not last, and that if I discontinue my medical studies that I am liable to regret it in the long run. Sound advice, but not exactly what I wanted to hear.

My parents were a lot less receptive. I tried to bring up the subject, I did. Dad actually considered it and discussed practical aspects like hours of work; mother shut the discussion down. The very idea that her son would stoop so low as to be a bus driver for a living was an abomination of epic proportions.

I don’t know if I really could have expected to just walk away from medicine, before starting my 5th year. It didn’t work, anyway.

Back to medicine.

Back to medicine, reluctantly.

Back to medicine, reluctantly, and with thoughts of quitting bouncing back and forth in my head.

I had embraced “bus driver” as part of my identity at this point. I wore a Go Bus jacket on my way to and from the hospital (it went into my locker before I went anywhere near a clinical area, don’t worry), and that became my outward identity. My wall (both in my room and on Facebook) started filling up with photos of buses I’ve been driving, taken in awe that I can go to work, get allocated a big bus, and get to drive it.

I went into my first day of 5th year thinking “this is it, today is the day I quit.” Probably not the best starting attitude. The thought occurred to me a lot, with frequency and intensity. I hid it well, though. Other than being knowledgeable about buses, and admitting to driving them in the weekends, I kept up appearances and gave no hint for the first two quarters in 5th year that I didn’t want to be there. Even though, a lot of the time, I didn’t.

Things gradually deteriorated during 5th year. General Medicine was a reasonably enjoyable rotation, many thanks to a friendly, caring registrar. Advanced Surgery saw me become gradually more apathetic towards med school. I must confess to skipping class one day to drive a bus at the newly built Bus Interchange, where I helped out with testing the automated door allocation systems. The downward drift didn’t stop there.

Paediatrics was a tough run. Four action-packed weeks full of clinical sessions, field trips, and tutorials, where we had a logbook of clinical contact (with children) to fill out. I am not good with children. I did not enjoy forced contact with children. I did not excel at this forced contact with children. To make things worse, we did the Paeds run in the middle of winter, so our group took turns at being sick, with hardly a single day of 100% attendance.

I nearly quit on paeds. I was approaching the point where I couldn’t take it anymore – I dreaded going to the hospital every day, I dreaded having to have contact with children, and I dreaded the looming deadlines on various assignments. I had a chat with our Group Mum, who recommended I talk to our Associate Dean of Student Affairs and see a counsellor. When all was said and done, it was decided that I would take a gap year between 5th and 6th years, to go and drive buses and enjoy life and contemplate coming back. Things settled down somewhat, I got through the paeds run and spent some weeks on psych (which was much more relaxed), and thought I’d try and get through the last quarter.

If only it were that easy.


9 – Departure

If only it were that easy to get through the last quarter and the Fifth Year Exams. The last quarter was O&G, which, being male and not interested in females, was never going to be easy. Fifth Year Exams were also just around the corner – these were the biggest exams at medical school, by sheer volume of examinable content. As MSO’s own greenglacier (an idol of mine from HSFY days) put it, it “aims to assess everything that is reasonable of a beginning Trainee Intern.” This was a generally stressful time for all involved, as the stakes were high (failing would be highly disruptive to a pre-planned Trainee Intern year, which involved a 3-month elective generally spent overseas) and the boundary of “examinable material” was not clearly defined.

It all piled on at the same time – naturally. Starting O&G (and receiving the long list of things that must be attended, x number of births etc etc), 5th year exams looming, plus vertical modules (topics like pathology that run through the year) assignments & assessments all happening at the same time. To add to it, parents were pressuring me to do the legwork for them buying a house in Christchurch (because grandma offered to pay the deposit, I think), and I was foolish enough not to draw a line in the sand and tell them I didn’t have the time or the energy for house hunting. One day, I was also foolish enough to mention that I was taking a year out, ostensibly to drive buses, with the predictable reactions.

I don’t know if it was courage or desperation that I found, but suffice to say I had reached my breaking point, and I had to do what was right for me.

I ripped off the lanyard with my hospital ID, name badge and swipe card. Once upon a time they gave me pride and purpose, now they were weighing down on my neck and threatened to turn into a noose. Off with the lot of it.

I stopped going to class.

I left medical school.

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I suppose I was in rough shape. I suppose it showed.

I was allowed to make a late withdrawal from the 5th year programme, and my previous 1-year withdrawal for 2016 stood.

I filed the paperwork to go full time at Go Bus, giving myself a week to rest and recuperate before the full-time work started.

It didn’t take that long. The relief was immediate.

To her credit, mother took time off and flew down to Christchurch to make sure I would be okay. She finally stopped insisting on medicine, for a while anyway.

She managed to buy that house while she was down visiting. Good on her. Since both my parents still worked in Palmy (and grandad was in a rest home with dementia), I managed to move into that house. Thanks mum.

The next week I turned into a full-time bus driver. Not much changed there – I got issued a few more uniform shirts and had a few more shifts to my name on the roster each week, but it was the same bus driving I enjoyed.


10 – Trouble in Paradise

The months that followed turned into a bit of a blur. For once in my life, each week brought the same things, none of it overly memorable. A nice rhythm developed, and I could finally see how adults were always lamenting the rapid passage of time.

Each second doesn’t pass by any quicker, especially when you’re stuck in traffic, but because each week doesn’t differ much from the previous or the next, you stop keeping track of how many weeks it has been.

In school, each week brought different topics and different homework and different assessments, with the number of weeks needing to be tracked carefully to plan assignments and prepare for assessments. In working life, a steady pattern develops, and, like a song playing on repeat, it fades into the background until something jumps out. Something like “only one month until Christmas” that suddenly makes you think “didn’t we just have Christmas?”

Something jumped out two months later.

“I’ve finished my engineering degree, so I’m leaving Go Bus soon”, the text message read. Well that was unexpected.

Who was that, you ask? That was the young-looking bus driver I saw on the bus home that fateful Sunday night, the one that inspired me to apply for a bus driving job. I got to meet him and talk to him at Go Bus (and tell him that story!), and we became friends.

Except now he was leaving.

Okay.

Then something else jumped out.

“So, I was talking to my old boss at Red Bus, and he offered me a driving job there, so I’m gonna go for it”, read the next text message. Oh, come on.

That was Liam (name used with permission), my new crush. We met one day when I was talking to the young supervisor at my depot, and Liam happened to come and visit – he was a supervisor at the other depot. All three of us were interested in buses so we had a good long chat and became friends.

While I was slaving away at medical school, Liam had moved up the ranks to Driver Trainer, but he didn’t like the office politics involved and became sick of the place, so he was going back to Red Bus where he started, to drive.

My two best workmates at Go Bus were both leaving at the same time. Give me a break.

“You should come to Red Bus too! Your favourite 684 is there,” said Liam. Of course I had a favourite bus from when I was 12 – at the time Red Bus #684 was the only bus to have both a “Metro pod” (decorative branding attachment) on the front and an air conditioning unit on the back, the symmetry made it look nice.

You’d think I would’ve learned about going somewhere following a crush. You’d think I would’ve learned that after the first time. You’d be wrong.

I managed to get Liam to set up an appointment with the Transport Manager of Red Bus. I walked in with an application form and walked out with paperwork for a medical and a pre-employment drug & alcohol test.

I finished my last month at Go Bus, and right after New Year, I started 2016 at a new company. The bus company that dominated the Christchurch bus scene back in 2004. The company I dreamed of working at as an 11-year-old. Red Bus.

Why did I say “you’d think I would’ve have learned after the first time” I followed a crush somewhere?

Because Liam left Red Bus just three months later, to start his own bus company.

God, I love how history repeats itself.


11 – Higher Aspirations

Liam was a good friend (still is). Before he left, he recommended me for the Red Bus control room, and got me trained on the tour coaches. It turned out to be a productive move from Go Bus after all.

I did a couple of shifts a week as the second person in the control room, and over a number of months I gained much knowledge, experience and confidence. Eventually when one of the senior controllers retired, I was offered the position as a six-month trial.

I had all but forgotten about medical school when the Associate Dean of Student Affairs (ADSA) emailed me. I set a time to meet with her and discuss my plans. I signed the paperwork for another 1-year withdrawal for 2017 and asked about a permanent exit.

In truth, I was quite clear in my mind that once I left medical school I would not be going back. Even before I had left, I knew I would not want to endure the trials and tribulations of 5th year a second time. Worse still, I would have to do all this with a whole other class. My favourite part of the ALM years was my class, or rather, the people of my class. There were some excellent people, but more importantly, they were MY people – we had come through HSFY, ELM2-3, and ALM4-5 together. I didn’t want to leave them, but having left, I also didn’t want to come back to a whole different class of strangers.

Perhaps it was because I didn’t share that thought? Perhaps I didn’t come across as having a plan? I suppose when I insisted that I didn’t intend on returning to medicine, and that I didn’t want to pursue further study, it must not have looked as though I had a great futureproof plan. Or perhaps more was expected of me? That might be it – I suppose a bright young medical student suddenly opting to “just” be a bus driver for good must’ve seemed odd.

In any case, the ADSA asked if I would consider seeing a careers advisor. This proved logistically difficult as the University of Otago’s careers advisors were in Dunedin. After much hassle I managed to sneak in to see a University of Canterbury careers advisor.

“So, given that you’re wanting to leave medicine, would I be correct that money isn’t a big motivating factor for you?” asked the careers advisor. “That would be correct”, I replied.

“So, what would be your biggest motivating factor, when it comes to career choices?”

Good question.

I had to think about it for a moment.

“Um, I guess, big machines with wheels?” I made both of us laugh. I went on to elaborate that I’d wanted to drive buses, drive trains, and fly airplanes.

“Okay, so what would you say is a career development goal for you? This is the most brutally honest conversation I’ve had in a while, by the way, and I’m loving it.”

Another good question I had to think about.

“Well, I did have this idea back at high school that I would drive buses for a few years then go onto driving trains.”

“Good. Do you know who the employer would be for train driving?”

“I guess that would be KiwiRail.”

“Well, why don’t you try sending their recruitment people an email, express your interest and ask how you can go about it?”

“That sounds like a good idea, it feels a little… disloyal, though. I’ve only been at Red Bus for a few months.”

“Sure, but making an enquiry is not the same as leaving right away. KiwiRail might not recruit for a while, anyway.”

It was actually quite a productive discussion for me. The discussion reminded me of my career plan from Year 13, and that there was indeed something higher than buses I could aim for. Now just to try and get there.


12 – Closure

If there was one thing about medical school that I missed, it would be my class in Christchurch. I got to see them one last time, though, on what I assume was the last night the Christchurch Class of 2016 were together.

The fine lads and “ladesses” organizing the Grad Dinner hired two buses for transport from the hospital to the vineyard, where the dinner would be held, and they hired Red Bus. They gave me a heads-up too – this was fortunate. I pulled some strings to be rostered on as one of their drivers. I would drive my new favourite bus, #974, and another driver would follow in my “old girl”, #684. When we arrived at the venue, I parked up the bus and went inside to join my class – as I had arranged with the company.

Aside from not being able to drink alcohol (I was the sober driver for the whole class, after all), it was an excellent evening. A three-course meal was served, photos were taken, and class prizes were awarded. (I even got the “Most likely to run away and become a bus driver” award!)

The trip back was quite possibly the most fun I’ve ever had in a bus. Interior lights were turned off, music was turned up, and the wheelchair bay at the front of the bus became an impromptu dance floor. We dropped off the tired good kids at the hospital bus stop, and by special request, I drove the party animals (which proved to be the majority on my bus) to the night club around the corner.

I’m pleased I managed to attend the last class party. As their bus driver, of all things.

This gave me closure with my class.

The rest of my closure with medical school came later. In late 2017 I checked in with the ADSA, thinking perhaps I would be getting another 1-year withdrawal. I was greeted with the news that an exit degree had been established for students exiting from the health science professional programmes who have studied for more than 3 years, who do not wish to pursue further study.

This was right up my alley.

I withdrew permanently from medicine and graduated with the exit degree, Bachelor of Health Sciences.

I guess that makes me Cathay, BHealSc, and no longer associated with the medical school.


13 – Epilogue: Getting There

Having bid my class farewell and received my exit degree, it was time to become an adult and focus on career goals.

I must admit, I didn’t particularly enjoy my time as the main controller at Red Bus. Although I enjoyed my time as the second person, it was a much more practical role than the controller. Jumping into a bus and roaring down the road to personally fix a breakdown wasn’t an option anymore. The controller’s job was to deal with people. Drivers, workshop, lost property, complaints, admin, management; the list goes on. Perhaps I should’ve learned after my lack of enjoyment in the clinical side of medicine, that a job primarily dealing with people was not destined to suit me for long. Consider that lesson learned now.

Luckily, one of the second persons I was training proved to be very promising, and I eventually trained him up to take over the controller’s job from me. We became friends through this time, and eventually the student became the master, and I did a mixture of urban driving and control room second person shifts (working with my former apprentice was particularly fun) until the end of my time at Red Bus.

As I promised the careers advisor at UC, I enquired with KiwiRail Careers about train driving, and was advised to sign up on their website to receive job alerts as jobs are advertised. They were also courteous enough to advise that Transdev, who operate the Wellington and Auckland suburban networks, was another potential employer. Moving cities wasn’t my first preference, though, so I stuck with KiwiRail and made applications whenever Christchurch-based Trainee Locomotive Engineer (train driver) positions came up.

I knew I had to take a different approach the third time I was unsuccessful in my application. I contemplated becoming a shunter (Rail Operator) in Christchurch and apply for a driving job as an internal candidate. “Or, have you thought about driving suburban trains in Wellington?” asked Liam. Well that was the second option – to uproot and move to Wellington or Auckland, and drive suburban trains with Transdev.

As luck would have it, I saw a Transdev recruitment advert the day after my third rejection from KiwiRail. I wasn’t entirely hopeful at this point, thanks to the three rejections, but applied anyway. After some aptitude testing, I was invited for an interview – a stage I had not reached with KiwiRail.

Two days after the interview, I received a phone call to congratulate me on being accepted to the 2019 talent pool, with the first intake commencing in February. Another four days later, a second phone call came, asking if I would consider starting on the 23rd of October (exactly two weeks from that day) to fill in a spot, as another candidate dropped out at the last minute. Hesitant but not wanting to miss my chance, I said yes, and the confirmation came the next day.

Then came the real challenge – moving to Wellington in 13 days.

Lucky I’ve worked in a control room and had some coordination and problem-solving skills!
 

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Cathay

Train Driver
Emeritus
14 – Frequently Asked Questions

About this Blog/Article
  1. What are you doing now?
    At the time of writing, I’m 7 months into the 9-month training programme to drive suburban trains in Wellington. This means I currently drive commercial services under the supervision and guidance of a tutor driver. If you happen to take the train in Wellington, I might even drive you! (I’ll be behind a locked cab door, though, so maybe wave through the cab window?)

    UPDATE: At time of re-posting, I’m 8.5 months into the 9-month training programme, and am currently undergoing the two-week certification assessment process. (Time to “be a med student” again and study & prep hard!)

    UPDATE 2: I thought I'd come back and update this again, since I got fully certified as a Locomotive Engineer yesterday - I have now finished the 9-month training programme, and now drive the suburban trains in Wellington on my own.

  2. What made you come back to MSO?
    Earlier this week, Facebook reminded me that I had been friends with frootloop for 8 years, which means it had been 8 years since frootloop and Ben (NZ Ben) MSO-stalked me to the Science Library. I dropped by on this occasion to see how MSO was, and Yamster caught me snooping in Chatbox, we got chatting and she invited me to write this blog to help revive the blog section of MSO.

  3. Why are you so open about the details, what about anonymity?
    I think my journey is too unique to try for anonymity. The fact that I went to Otago and was in MBChB Class of 2016 is publicly viewable on MSO, and I doubt any other medical student has gone from med school to bus driving to train driving in recent times, if ever. I can’t stop this story being traced back to me, so I have opted instead to tell my story as frankly as I can without saying anything controversial that’ll get me in trouble. It helps that I don’t intend on going back to medicine 😉

  4. This story is incredible, are you fully serious?!
    Yes. In this text I have described my experiences to the best of my recollection. I can’t guarantee that all dialogue is exactly word-for-word since it has been some time, but no parts were fictionalized nor dramatized, and I have tried my best to capture the trends of how I felt, as well as to recount the memorable moments in my journey.

    Fortunately, having been away from med school for nearly 4 years, I’m now detached/distant enough to reflect on the experience in a slightly more objective manner. For example, that I really enjoyed the ELM years, and that I really did not enjoy the ALM years leading up to my departure from med school.

    Retrospect is like having presbyopia, the more distant you look the clearer you see.
About Me
  1. But you only had a year and a half to go!
    This is the most common question from people outside the profession, and possibly bothers me the most. Forgive me if I sound defensive in my answer.

    There are a number of ways that a simple look at the remaining time it takes to complete the degree is not reflective of what it takes to get there – and what it achieves. Suffice it to say that had it been a “normal degree” where it was only a year and a half of “normal university study” separating me from some significant reward, I would have stayed.

    Firstly, this supposed “year and a half” included the 5th year exams. Keeping in mind that 4th year did not have exams, so it had been almost two years since I had sat a proper final exam, and during this time I was becoming more and more disengaged with medicine, so I basically only worked to keep my head above water for the run I was on. I was not well prepared for the 5th year exams, at all.

    Secondly, the fundamental reason I left, and the reason I wasn’t enjoying myself in the clinical years, is that clinical medicine wasn’t a good fit for me. I went into medicine for the wrong reasons and it bit me, hard. I didn’t enjoy clinical situations, and I dreaded OSCEs (clinical assessments). Even if I had passed the 5th year exams (with a 10-station OSCE on top of the MCQ/SAQ components) I’d only be getting myself into “a world of hurt” with the Trainee Intern year, which is almost purely clinical.

    Let’s say I somehow snuck through the 5th year exams and somehow survived TI year, what now? Yes, there’s a medical degree there, but with clinical medicine not being where my interests lie, what would be the purpose of having a medical degree? The research side of things didn’t tickle my fancy, and non-clinical specialties (like pathology) were locked behind another two years of clinical work as a House Officer. I wouldn’t even get NZMC registration without doing a PGY1 year. And once again, all this would be useless memorabilia given that my true dream was in driving heavy vehicles. (Note: NZMC = NZ Medical Council; PGY1 = Post-Graduation Year 1, i.e. first year house officer.)

    Next, and the answer I can’t bring myself to tell strangers (who are generally the ones asking this question), is that I was not in a good headspace when I left. We can debate the objective difficulty of ALM5/TI/PGY1 etc until we’re blue in the face, but the fact of the matter is I was disengaged, I was disinterested, and I was not in a good headspace. This was not a recipe for success.

    Finally, from the viewpoint of professionalism and ethics, it would not have been right for me to continue in the state I was in. Despite inner doubts and turmoil, I did my best to maintain professional standards and keep up appearances right up until the day I left. Patient care was never compromised (not that I had any real part to play in my last 6 months there) and even in the last clinical session I ever attended (the second to last thing I ever attended at med school) I maintained professionalism. I have not let the profession down in my time; but had I continued recklessly in an unfit state, I fear that I would have.


  2. The “what if” questions:
    • 2a) What if you hadn’t done any bus driving during medical school?
      This is a good “what if”. I suppose in the way that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, a little hope was a dangerous thing. The bus driving brought joy to my life, in a way medicine didn’t, in a way the lab work didn’t, in a way a lot of things didn’t. One of the most distressing things I found in 5th year was that I had an idea, an option, a job waiting for me outside med school, and I didn’t have the courage nor the support to jump ship and pursue it.

      It’s entirely possible that, without any alternative, I could’ve pushed through and completed the degree. It may even have been possible for me to struggle through PGY1 and PGY2 and whatever it took to get onto, let’s say, the Pathology training programme. But I would’ve always had the dream, the idea, the vision, to drive a heavy vehicle instead; and I don’t think I would’ve been quite as fulfilled. Indeed, it may simply have delayed things for months or years until I ran away and did what I had to do.

    • 2b)What if your parents hadn’t pushed you to do the legwork for them buying a house at the same time?
      Mother is fond of this particular “what if”. To be honest that would’ve only removed a small amount of the stressors on me at the time, probably not enough to make a difference. At the time I definitely didn’t need the extra stress though!
  3. How did your parents take it?
    Dad was trying to come up with alternative career plans for me for a while, but being from a peasant family in rural China, he was much more open to a “working class” career. He isn’t too worried as long as I’m doing honest work for honest wages, I guess.

    Mother, though, was a whole different story. In the immediate crisis she somehow managed to remain calm, but as soon as a few months had passed after I left med school, she kept bringing up med school and asking me about going back to med school. Every time I talked to her, we ended up having an argument about med school; it often ended with her giving up, but she never accepted it – because she always brought it up again, and again, and again. She insisted I kept all my textbooks and all the miscellaneous pieces of paper (lecture handouts etc) from med school, and she was most upset when I permanently withdrew from med school and opted for the exit degree. To this day, mother continues to ask if I would reconsider going back to med school, or doing dentistry instead, or pharmacy, or med lab sci. Or how about doing a science degree and work in a lab, or accounting, or something.

    The epitome of mother’s reaction, was two years after I had left med school, she flew into Christchurch and caught my bus at the airport, I drove her all the way to the Sumner terminus on the other side of Christchurch, and she asked “so when are you getting a real job?”

    Dad later told me the reason for mother’s irrational insistence for me to pursue a “respectable profession”. She had bragged to all her friends and relatives that I was a hot shot med student and was going to be a doctor, and with my leaving med school, her story suddenly fell apart. The temporary cover-up story she told was that I was not well and was taking time away from med school, and she didn’t want to “lose face” (Chinese cultural thing) by having to eventually admit that I had left. Imagine the shame of having to turn around and admit that her son had become a bus driver! This was not my concern, though, and going back to med school “so mum can brag about me to her friends” would also be the wrong reason to pursue medicine.

  4. Do you regret leaving medicine?
    Not for a moment. As mentioned in Section 4 (and FAQ question 1), in retrospect I really went into medicine for all the wrong reasons and leaving was probably the best thing I did.

  5. Do you plan on ever going back?
    No. As mentioned in Section 11 I was quite clear in my mind at the time I left, that I would not be back, and although my perspectives have shifted on many things, this is not one of them.

  6. If you were to go through life again, would you do anything differently?
    Possibly, although I wouldn’t be the same person I am today.

    I think I would still go to Dunedin for HSFY. If my dad didn’t happen to travel to Dunedin with me, he would’ve been at his regular physio appointment at 12.30-1.30pm on Tuesday 22 February 2011, and the clinic’s building was damaged in the September 2010 quakes, so at that time they were based in the CTV building. (Cantabrians will realize the significance of it at this point.) The building collapsed when the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake hit at 12.51pm, and many of the staff and patients at the clinic (our family GP included) didn’t make it. So dad and his physio both avoided being there thanks to my going to Dunedin. I’m not that keen to change that.

    I think I would still go into medicine. With my UMAT and HSFY results, mother would’ve never forgiven me if I went into pharmacy (my second choice – dentistry is not my thing) instead, and I doubt any of my friends (or any of MSO) would’ve understood it – I doubt I would’ve understood it either, at the time. Medical school fundamentally shaped me into the person I am today, it shaped my way of thinking, it shaped my way of working, and it shaped my personality. I truly believe medical school improved me as a person.

    I think I would still stick it out until end of ALM4. I really enjoyed the ELM years, and it wasn’t until ALM4 that it dawned on me that clinical wasn’t for me.

    I think I would still go into bus driving. I’d thought about it for way too long not to.

    I think I would still leave medicine. Medicine as a career just wasn’t for me.

    I could’ve left earlier, either before the start of 5th year or earlier in 5th year, so as not to really run myself down by the time I did leave. The downside of doing that would be that, without the really bad times to deter me, mother might’ve talked me into going back – and I doubt any good would’ve come of it.

  7. Do you plan on doing something with your Health Sciences degree?
    Not really. Besides being very happy at the helm of heavy machinery, I never did go and find out exactly what this Bachelor of Health Sciences (with no major because it was awarded as an exit degree) would enable me to do.

    I suppose next time the Census forms come around, I’ll be able to answer the “highest form of education completed” question by ticking “bachelor’s degree”!

  8. What do you plan to do in the future?
    All going well with the rest of training and certification (UPDATE 2: now certified :D), I expect I’ll be driving suburban trains in Wellington!
 
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