During my medical school training in Tel Aviv, I used to grab my books, head to the beach, and study in the sun. While my fellow colleagues locked themselves up in the library or their bedrooms, I chose to study outdoors.
Lying out on the sand in the sun had a calming affect on me, allowing me to reflect on where I had been and where I was going. The ocean breeze would rejuvenate me, bring me an intense joy, and for the first time in a long time I finally felt alive. Sitting on the beach and gazing out at the horizon ahead as the clear blue waves of the Mediterranean Sea hit the white-hot Ramat Aviv sand in Israel, I remember thinking how lucky I am.
I did not always think of myself as lucky, though. When I was 18, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. I went through a challenging 2½ years of chemotherapy, while others my age enjoyed the excitement of college life. With help from family, friends, my doctor and God, I went into remission and finished my bachelor’s degree in biology in three years.
Just two months after completing my chemotherapy treatment, I made a bold decision to go to medical school in Israel. It was a decision that I made rather spontaneously, and it surprised many of my family members and friends.
To understand why I had made this decision I think back to a promise that I made to myself and to God the moment I walked out of the hospital after spending nearly two weeks there shortly after being diagnosed with cancer.
I still clearly remember how it felt the moment I walked outside and felt the crisp air for the first time in 12 long days. The feeling that I could go home with another chance at life was overwhelming. Compared to how dim and stale everything appeared while staring out the window from my hospital bed, the air outside moved valiantly and colors appeared so much brighter and more vibrant than I had ever remembered.
That was the first time in my life that I cried tears of joy. I felt hope for the first time in two weeks, and although I knew the battle was not over, and that I had over two more years of chemotherapy left, I somehow knew at that exact moment that I was strong and that I would make it through.
I was grateful to be alive in a way that only one who has faced death can truly understand. I was high on life and I never wanted that feeling to go away. I made a promise at that moment to never let a day go by without going outside and enjoying the feeling of the wind against my cheek, the bright colors, and all the sights and sounds that our unbelievable world has to offer. I made a promise to live each day with the same invigorating love for life that I had at that moment when the hospital door closed behind me.
Going to medical school in Israel was my way of fulfilling that promise. To be able to learn to heal others in an environment where nature’s wonders surround you, is truly a gift. Medical school tends to be a time of closing yourself off within the four walls of your library and reading books about life instead of living it.
In Israel, I was able to take my books with me as I traveled, and even study on the beach near my university. My friends and colleagues often wondered how I could sit on the beach every day and study as the sun blindingly blocks the printed words on the page. It was challenging, but it was my way of keeping the promise I had made to myself about living life to its fullest every day. It was my way of communicating with God and nature, and coming to terms with who I was, where I came from, and where I was headed.
Staring out at sea while being in medical school in Israel really brought me back to life. The ocean breeze allowed me to feel that I was not alone, and that God was pulling for me to make it through. Lying out on the Tel Aviv sand, I was able to appreciate how lucky I was to be at that point in medical school so soon after coming so close to nearly dying of cancer. I was elated to be in Israel, and so grateful to be alive.
While learning how to heal others, God, via the air and sun of Israel, had healed me.
Dr. Deborah Friedman is TK