Back in March, I pursued an opportunity to present findings from my research at a symposium in the Netherlands that coming August. As with most of my adventures, I planned to add some pleasure to this business trip.
I have a fair amount of stamps from the Netherlands in my passport (thank you Delta / KLM transfers) but this was the first time I left the airport. I spent most of my time in Amsterdam and Utrecht, but I also skipped over to Den Haag for a solid 40 hours. See captions below for a quick overview:
I’ve struggled with putting pen to paper on this topic for quite some time because, in short, the story is complicated. For the sake of a blog post, I figured the best way to succinctly share is to publish a short response I submitted for a secondary medical school application.
Discuss a time when you stepped out of your comfort zone. What were the challenges? What did you learn?
In August, I had my first opportunity to travel to the Netherlands. International travel always presents challenges, but this trip in particular pushed me out of my comfort zone: I was attending the International Symposium for Young Adults with von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) as both a patient and a professional, presenting my dissertation research on reproductive counseling for young VHL-positive people.
During introductions, we were encouraged to share our current “VHL challenge”; I met people like T who had traveled 30+ hours by train, because his current post-operative instructions barred him from flying. I was moved by my peers’ courageous stories, simultaneously feeling blessed and self-conscious of NOT having the token scar along the nape of my neck indicative of brain surgery. I was shaken from these inner reflections when K shared her concerns that VHL would be incompatible with having children. Trying to offer help, the symposium coordinator singled me out as a “subject matter expert”. I flushed.
I enjoy public speaking, but presenting as both a patient and researcher quickened my heart rate. I was confident in my research, but the topic of reproduction is nevertheless sensitive. My presentation increased the awkward gap between the participants and me until I finished an interactive presentation with a silenced audience. Later that evening, participants began to approach me individually, sometimes with a reflective statement, technical questions, philosophical musings, or a quiz about my personal views. More commonly, however, they greeted me with positive encouragement: we are really appreciative to hear this from a VHL-positive person like you who not only knows her stuff but truly GETS it. As a physician, balancing authoritative knowledge with empathetic care will be a persistent challenge, but I know the more I practice navigating this awkward tension, the better I will be able to serve my patients.