Thoughts from Church Retreat

Last weekend I went on a church retreat.  The highlight for me was a seminar on social justice.  The speaker was a lawyer who works with the urban poor populations, especially women who turn to prostitution to pay for their drug addictions.  I won’t try to summarize the seminar here, but let’s just say I was moved by the heart she has for these women and her willingness to put her skills and resources to love those in need of God’s love.

This seminar was so good for me was because it rekindled the little bit of heart I have for the poor and marginalized people in our communities, especially children from broken homes.  During college God taught me how to start loving the urban poor, and before med school I did my best to donate some of my earnings and pray for social justice.  However, med school sort of put out any time/energy to engage with these issues.  I am so busy and drowning in my training that I cannot also pour out myself for others.  (I’m the one who needs to be poured into nowadays!)

I often fear that somewhere along my medical training I would lose the heart of God for social justice.  I know right now I need to be focused on my studies so that later I can help others, but I keep imagining that by the time I’ve obtained the skills to make a big difference, I would no longer have the desire to use them for good.

I know I am not going to go start volunteering regularly at a soup kitchen or donate my non-existent money to mission organizations any time soon.  On the surface it’s going to look like this seminar made no difference in my life.  But I’m still thankful because it made me realize that the itty-bitty heart for the poor and the marginalized is still somewhere deep deep inside me.  May the good and loving God keep the fire alive until the time is right.

Friends in California in Chicago

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This past weekend 3 of my friends from California flew over to Chicago to visit.  I had feared that it would be too cold for them, but they must have brought the sunshine of Southern California within their hearts because this weekend was the warmest it has been in a long time.  All the snow melted and it was beautiful.

If I were to summarize what we did in Chicago, it would be that we ate a lot.  We ate deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s, went to Shake Shack burgers for dinner, bought donuts at Firecakes (which we ate for early morning snack the next day), ate brunch at Yolk, dinner at Xocos, brunch at the Purple Pig, and a second brunch at Wildberry.  But somehow the most frequent place we visited was Garrett’s popcorn shop and Walgreens (I found out that Walgreens’s headquarters is in Chicago and therefore there is a Walgreens store everywhere!).  Somewhere during all the food we went shopping, I got Snapchat, went to the natural history museum, lost all the data on my phone, took a morning walk/run along the Chicago river, found the statue of Benito Juarez, etc.

I won’t go into detail about everything we did because what we did really doesn’t capture the happiness that I felt during those couple days.  It was just so cool to have my hometown friends that I’ve known since middle/high school just randomly fly over during my spring break just to hang out in Chicago.  For those 3 days they helped me forget about all my problems and thrive in the every minute of the present.  It’s incredible how you can find escape from stress when you’re with friends.  Who needs drugs when you have friends?

Anyways, I just wanted to brag about what cool friends I have and how lucky I was to have them in Chicago for those precious few days.

 

Simeon Koh

A New Creation, a Dentally Insured Grown-up Gentleman

Yesterday I took full advantage of my dental insurance and got 4 cavities fixed.  That might seem like a lot, but psh I got 5 more to go.  I did pay $278.90 for the 4 cavities, but considering my insurance paid $534.10, I feel not so bad.  The dentist office people gave me a sheet that says by the end I would end up paying $692.50 for the 9 cavities, but my insurance will pay $1382.50; if I had no insurance I would have to pay everything which comes out to $2075.00.

Before you judge me for my cavities (or maybe it’s too late), I have to tell you that they really didn’t seem bad to me.  I didn’t have any tooth pain, there were no visible black cavity spots, and I didn’t have bad breath (at least I don’t think I did…).  But now I’ve learned that cavities don’t have to be black and brushing my teeth regularly isn’t good enough.  If it weren’t for my wisdom teeth, I would have never known I had so many oral problems.

In November, my impacted wisdom teeth were pushing out again and started to hurt.  I’ve known for years that my wisdom teeth were very slowly growing out crookedly but they didn’t bother me enough so I just let it sit.  I was half in denial and half trying to convince myself that waiting for them to come out more would make the job easier for the dentist (that’s how much of a nice guy I am!).  But this time it hurt so much that I would wake up several times in the middle of the night.  So I found a dentist.

Confession:  until this time, I hadn’t been to the dentist since probably middle school (or maybe I went one time in high school?), which is like minimum 8, maximum 15 years ago…  People I’ve told this have been unanimously horrified.  Apparently it’s a thing that people actually go to the dentist.  After all my baby teeth were out, I didn’t get black cavities and nothing hurt so I never felt the need to go.  Also, for most of my adolescence my family didn’t even have health insurance; so what makes you think we had dental insurance?  To the doctor I would go once in a while because I needed to get some forms signed for participating in sports or to get into college etc. but nobody made me go to the dentist.

Anyways, in November I got my 2 wisdom teeth pulled out (Thanksgiving was fun) without insurance which cost ~$1000.  But more urgently my dentist said I really needed a deep cleaning lest I develop periodontal disease which is apparently something scary, and that also cost ~$1000 without insurance.  That was a lot of money, but apparently even if I had signed up for dental insurance they wouldn’t cover expensive things like those until 6 months of being insured.  So I paid everything out of pocket and thought it was the end… until my dentist said now I gotta get my 9 cavities fixed, which would cost another $2000.

So that is the story of why I have dental insurance (cavities are covered immediately when your insurance takes effect, unlike deep cleaning).  I am now a new creation, a dentally insured grown-up gentleman.  Since November I have been brushing my teeth with much more vigor, flossing every night, and using a mouth wash every night.  Learn from my experience and join me, friends, in taking care of our oral health.

Simeon Koh

Adventures at a McDonalds Drive-Through

Last week, I had a relatively productive day at school.  I accomplished my goals for the day despite numerous distractions and left school at 2AM.

If I were a body image-conscious supermodel, I would have just gone home.  But since I am not, I stopped by McDonalds 24-hr drive-through.  I ordered 2 breakfast burritos and 1 hash brown.  I may not be very conscious about body image, but because I am an environmentally conscious citizen, I turned off my car while I waited for the has brown to cook, rather than to let the greenhouse gases pollute the air.  Then I got my food and turned the keys… and then the car wouldn’t start but the car alarm went off.  Interesting.  Awkward.  Terribly embarrassing, as the McDonalds lady looked at me with her widened pupils.

I use my car remote to turn off the alarm and try again.  Same thing.  Just alarms going off at a lonely McDonalds drive through at 2:30 in the morning.  I try a couple times, check under the hood, etc. with no luck.  Thankfully since my car is less than 5 years old I could call “Hyundai roadside assistance.”

“Are you inside your vehicle and at a safe location?”  she asked.

“…Yes… I’m in a very safe place.”  I replied.

I spend several minutes explaining that I was stuck at a very safe McDonalds drive-through and give her my information and etc.  During this time I’m getting more and more anxious, not because I’m afraid for my life or anything, but because my phone battery was at 5% and this lady at Hyundai roadside assistance was very very calm and … not rushed.  Thankfully my phone survives the conversation and the lady assures me that someone will be over “soon.”

Meanwhile I knocked on the drive-through window and asked the McDonalds lady if I could charge my phone.  She took my phone and charger, and I became probably the first non-employee to charge my phone via the outlet next to the McDonalds coffee machine.  Then I sat in my car (since only the drive-through was open, the restaurant itself wasn’t open) and ate my burritos and hash brown because I had nothing else to do.  I thought of studying (oh the disease of being a medical student) but I was too cranky for that.

In retrospect, I could have called my apartment-mate to come jump-start my car.  I also could have asked the McDonalds lady or other customers (who I learned start coming around 3:30AM) to jump start my car.  However, I was dumb and didn’t think it was the batteries because the lights and my alarm (especially) worked really well, and because I hadn’t noticed any leakage in the battery when I checked.  It was also 2:30AM and I had faith that someone will be over “soon.”

The person finally got there around 3:45AM (the person for some reason was at the Wal Mart across the street instead of the McDonalds and tried calling me but my phone was charging next to the coffee machine when he called).  But somehow I got in contact with him and he brought a portable battery starter and got me going in 10 seconds oh my goodness.

If I had known that a portable battery starters existed, I could have walked over to the Wal Mart across the street and bought myself one and gotten out of McDonalds in less than 30 minutes.  Instead I suffered alone in the car in the cold (it was less than 20F that night) for an hour and a half, occasionally blaring my car alarm in the middle of the night and ruining everyone’s 3:30AM McDonalds experience.

Anyways, I got home around 4AM and went to bed as a cold miserable and cranky man.

Simeon Koh

P.S.  Why does the car alarm go off if my batteries are no good?  There must be a gentler way of letting me know.

 

Something out of Nothing

All of a sudden, 2015 is gone.  I feel pretty meh about it, although I feel like I should be more hopeful for a new year or sentimental about this year passing.  Technically time is just a continuum, and Jan 1st is an artificial construct of a mere subset of human civilization; there’s nothing inherently special about tonight or tomorrow morning.

But we’re always looking for a reason (or an excuse) to put meaning and significance behind things.  We draw a line between Dec 31st of 2015 and Jan 1st of 2016 and say that something begins anew!  We celebrate with friends or family, we pig out on food, we stay up late into the night, go to church, kiss strangers, or scream our lungs out as we watch a fancy disco ball descend.  We make decisions to better ourselves, wish each other luck and blessings, and somehow create happiness out of nothing.

I think it’s interesting that so much hope, joy, and resolution can come from nothingness (albeit temporarily) for no reason other than that we people drew a line in the continuum of time and said it was special.  If we can create this much hope on Jan 1st, can we recreate it on Feb 2nd?  If we are indeed simply “deciding” to be so joyful tonight, can we just as readily decide to be joyful in the nights of fall?  If we can muster up the resolution to start exercising, to quit smoking, to make more money, to start reading the Bible more, etc. just because the new year seems like a good time to start doing so, can any day in the upcoming year be just as good of a time to make changes in our lives?

I suspect technically, the answer is yes.  But realistically, it’s hard.  There’s less momentum in the world after January.  Not enough “umph” among your friends and coworkers to push you when you want to start something anew in March.  We see fewer reasons to be joyful or hopeful for most the year.

Probably this blog post won’t be so helpful tonight or tomorrow as it will be a few weeks or months from now.  Maybe sometime in April when there’s no holiday to look forward to and things get so boring, remember that Jan 1st came out of nothing; we can perhaps make April 4th special as well.  We can always make something out of nothing.

Happy New Year

Simeon

All Struggles and No Good Feels

This is my fight song
Take back my life song
Prove I’m alright song
My power’s turned on
Starting right now I’ll be strong
I’ll play my fight song
And I don’t really care if nobody else believes
‘Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me

“Fight Song” by Rachel Platten

***

This school year has been pretty rough.  Every week is a struggle and I feel hopeless before each exam. True, last year I was always behind on studying until the end, but did fine.  But what’s difficult is that this year I’m studying harder but doing worse.

Actually, when I say I’m doing “worse,” I don’t necessarily mean my grades.  I just calculated my grades so far and they’re not as bad as I expected.  I’m not in danger of failing, but I do think that relative to the effort I’m putting in, my life should be better.

More accurately, I’m doing “worse” emotionally.  Everyday it’s all struggles and no good feels.  Yes friendships are great; I’m leading a Bible study at church; I even work out once a week with a friend; I’m blessed in so many ways… except I’m not enjoying what I’m doing at school.  I’m studying, but for some abstract goal of the future.  Hazy are the memories of the good old days when the reward of learning was the learning itself.

One thing I’ve decided to change is to stop reviewing so much old material.  I’ve been spending about 2 hours a day reviewing old stuff, because I’ll need it when I take the USMLE Step 1 in June.  The problem is that 2 hrs/day = 14 hrs/wk = 42 hrs/(exam period).  If I were a better student, I would be a master of old content, and that mastery would help me learn the new content.  Instead, I’m always behind on my current materials, always playing catch-up and cramming right before the test (so I don’t learn them well, and have to learn them better when it becomes part of my review).

So maybe the problem is that I’m too stuck in the past, because I’m looking too far into the future, and therefore lost to the present.

***

Anyways, here’s a happy story:  On Sunday, after church I studied at school all day and all night until 5AM.  I went home to sleep for about 1.5 hrs, and returned to school for some last-minute studying of desperation before the exam. It was my first time doing this in med school, and surely it wasn’t a happy thing for my body (and perhaps brain).  But strangely (and sadistically?), I felt good.  I’m definitely not proud of what got me to that point, but I enjoyed how, in the midst of hopelessness, I fought back as hard as I could, and my exam went ok (it’s incredible what one can achieve the night before an exam).  Life may be really tough right now, but I shouldn’t worry, because I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.

Simeon Koh

Chicago Adventures with Sister

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Two weeks ago, my sister came to visit me.  In case you didn’t know, she is my favorite person in the whole wide world and I love her more than I love you (sorry).  We are very close and not afraid to show our affections for each other in our adorable behaviors and words.  Some jealous people think it’s weird for a brother and sister to love each other so much, but I think haters gonna hate; they don’t know what life should be.

Anyways, she came and I realized once again that in Waukegan, IL (1 hr north of Chicago) there is nothing worth seeing or doing.  So I showed her the greatest things I found up here: my friends!  I gathered a group of my friends for dinner to show her that my life here is great thanks to these wonderful people, and to show my friends how lovely my sister is.

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A couple days later, my sister’s friend W came to visit as well.  It was great to have W because I couldn’t possibly take my sister everywhere in Chicago and still survive as a medical student.  Glory to God that my sister has friends!  I was able to get a couple days to study while they were having fun times in the city.

Despite W’s help, I still got way behind on studying and I paid for it dearly last week.  But I have no regrets, and would do it again if I had to go back in time.  Studying I can (and should…) do everyday, but my love my sister I only had 5 days to be with.  I think she had a great time here, and therefore, I did too.

Good bye my favorite sister, and I shall see you in December.

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Simeon Koh

Finding Rest

My summer break is over.  Tomorrow I start my 2nd year of medical school.  Sadness overwhelms my soul.

Ironically, I hadn’t been very restful for most of my summer break.  During the 2 weeks I was back in California, I was busy meeting up with family and friends.  During the 8 weeks of doing research in Chicago, I slept less than during the school year (I woke up at 5 AM to beat the traffic).  I started exercising, and reviewed some for the board exam next year, moved twice, etc.  I wasn’t burning out with school, but I managed to fill up all my time with various activities instead of resting.

The night after my last day of research, I went to my church retreat, where the theme was “rest.”  My pastor preached something about how finding rest isn’t necessarily just physical or just doing nothing, but something about finding rest in God or something along those lines.  I would have a better summary, but I was really sleep-deprived from the last few days of finishing up my research project that I… found much-needed physical rest during his sermon.  But that retreat did lead me to think more about rest.

Firstly, I realized I need physical rest before I can find spiritual (or any other kind) of rest.  How could I find rest in God if I’m too busy sleeping in the middle of my pastor’s sermons?

Secondly, I realized, as my pastor said, that being lazy isn’t necessarily restful.  If we’re hungry, we need to eat.  However, filling our stomachs with unhealthy food ultimately makes us feel more lethargic and uncomfortable.  Only by filling ourselves with healthy and balanced meals can we really improve our energy and spirit.  Likewise, filling up my days with directionless activities and unhealthy habits ultimately won’t bring me rest.  I need to be smart about how I rest too.

I think I did a relatively good job of smartly resting for the past 2 weeks.  I’ve been getting enough sleep and alone-time; I’ve been getting a little bit of studying done too; I’ve had times of going out with friends; and I’ve somehow been more blessed at church and Bible study too.  The zealous part of me wishes I could have done more of each.  But I think it’s ok that a time of rest is not without some healthy number of regrets.  If I had somehow meticulously executed my rest plans perfectly to the nanosecond, I imagine I would have forgotten to rest at all.

Anyways, school starts tomorrow.  I hope I can adapt into a new equilibrium of work and rest.

Simeon Koh

My Experiences at Sinai Urban Health Institute (SUHI)

“[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.  Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.'”

– Luke 4:16-21

***

This summer I did research with Sinai Urban Health Institute (SUHI) at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago, a hospital that mainly serves the urban poor.  Somewhere deep in my heart there’s a tiny little room that yearns for the urban poor, and that tiny little heart led me to this research program.

Mt. Sinai Hospital was pretty ghetto as expected from a hospital that doesn’t make much money from their patients.  The building was old, water fountains were sketchy, and some of the bathrooms didn’t have fans to let out the smell after I occasionally… defecated in them.  To be fair, the parts that the patients see are nicer, thank goodness.  But the room I was working in had one freshly dead cockroach every morning (once, a cockroach was half-alive so I crunchily euthanized it).  And the wifi had a habit of dropping dead in the afternoon, as if to foreshadow the cockroaches’ fate that night.

But the ghettoness didn’t matter, because the research internship was so good.  In a lot of research programs, I hear the medical students are basically free/cheap labor minions.  Not here at Sinai Urban Health Institute.  The first full week of our internship was dedicated to educating us about urban public health issues, and throughout the next 7 weeks there was a day per week dedicated to field trips, book clubs, or other sessions to keep us grounded to the communities we were indirectly serving through our research.  Much of that training didn’t benefit SUHI directly (actually took time away from us and the staff doing more research), but they were more interested in inspiring and equipping medical students who can serve the underserved in the future.

Still, I’m not sure if I want to take my career to places like Mt. Sinai Hospital to serve the urban poor.  I won’t go into detail, but there are lots of challenges and barriers that come with treating the poor.  And there are lots of ways that lack of finances at a poor hospital can hinder the healthcare doctors provide and the training they receive.  Just as a small example, we mere student researchers probably lost several days’ worth of productive hours because of wifi problems; then imagine all of the other limitations that healthcare providers at Mt. Sinai Hospital face because the hospital can’t afford more or better rooms/machines/staff/etc.  I may have a high tolerance for ghettoness and difficult human interactions, but I don’t want to hinder my quality of training and services I would provide as a physician.  I have to wrestle with this for a while longer.

***

The question is, “Where will God take me?”  The tiny little room in my heart that desires to proclaim good news for the poor was built when I participated in an urban missions trip called Los Angeles Urban Project (LAUP) in 2011.  To be honest, I was skeptical and somewhat resistant during LAUP.  Then against my will, God led me to return to LAUP the following year as a team leader (a story for another blog post).  And now SUHI.  Still I am skeptical and resistant to jumping onto this path.  But I think my tiny little room for the poor is getting a teeny bit bigger.

One day while walking by the poor-looking people in the streets of Chicago, I thought, “When you need help, who will care for you? … I will be your doctor.”  I wonder if I was just thinking stupid things without actually thinking, or if it was a prayer that God made me pray.

Will God invite me to bring good news for the poor, proclaim freedom to the prisoners, restore sight to the blind, set the oppressed free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor?  Of course.  That is a calling for all Christians.  The question remains whether He will do so by making me a doctor in the inner city.

If you’re reading this and expecting that I’m going to be some Mother Teresa-looking doctor, please know that I reserve the right to not be like Mother Teresa.  You’ll see what I eventually become, but in the meanwhile I’ll be at war with myself.

Simeon Koh

Taste of Chicago Shenanigans

“I eat a little bit of everything, and not a lot of anything.”

– Giada de Laurentiis

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Last week I went to the Taste of Chicago, a food festival.  Several dozen food vendors open up a booth and give you food in exchange for tickets.  I knew it was going to be a hot, unhealthy, and expensive day, but I figured it might be a fun experience.

This food festival had these “taste of…” options where you can buy smaller portions for fewer tickets so that you don’t get full on just a few kinds of food.  Also, it’s a ploy for them to give you less food and sell you more stuff.

I was starving when I got there, so I bought this (“taste of…”) fried catfish thing and gobbled it up quickly.  Probably the reason I ate it so quickly was because it was 2 tiny pieces… for 4 tickets (12 tickets = $8.50, so 4 tickets = $2.83).  It was tasty, but it was literally… just a taste.

Next I bought this spicy something jerk chicken thing for 5 tickets ($3.54).  I got one tiny piece of chicken that’s pictured above.  It was so sad and I was so hungry that I was just gonna eat and take no pictures, but I took one for the blog.  Oh the dedication.

I also had some fried steak sandwich (like a beef katsu with marinara sauce in a sandwich).  Shared a funnel cake (at least it was a descent volume).  Some overpriced sorbet.  Etc.  Lastly I stood in a long long long line to get half a taco.  Yes, it was literally half of a taco, which we all know is pretty small to begin with.  And it didn’t taste that good.

But it was fun to be with friends and partake in this experience.  With the $17 I spent on food, I could have had a great meal elsewhere, but sometimes you pay more money for less food because somebody tells you it’s the Taste of Chicago.  Oh the price of adventure.

Simeon Koh