Two years ago I was the typical ambitious grad student; I worked my way through college and graduated from Cornell University with an honors degree. I then enrolled in a Ph.D program in developmental biology at a top-ranked medical college. My motivation defined me - I was content to put in the long hours necessary to complete my schoolwork and begin developing my research project. My life's plan was mapped out for me - Ph.D, post-doc, professorship in academia. School was spent in a blur of studying and lab-work; I was relentless in working towards my goal. Life was school and school was life.
And then, at the beginning of my second year of grad school, I was in a life-altering accident -- I was hit by a car while walking across the street, in the type of freak accident that people hear about on the news but never imagine will happen to them. There were a total of three pedestrians hit - I was the first to get hit and sustained the most serious of the injuries. My head hit the windshield, completely shattering the glass, and resulting in a mild traumatic brain injury.
I was lucky - my physical injuries healed within a matter of months. The brain injury took a little longer - for about six months I had a mild stutter and I got dizzy every-time that I tried to work out. But the emotional imprint of my accident turned out to be the most lingering effect. I developed an acute fear of cars, which in the car-centric city of Houston is prohibitive to maintaining a normal life. Between the acute panic caused by my accident and the everyday stress of working in a high-charged grad school environment, I turned into a sobbing, hysterical mess. For the first time in my life, I was unable to fulfill the responsibilities expected of me. I no longer knew who I was - I had always defined myself by my work ethic and my ambition. Now I was incapable of working a full-time job, let alone a graduate program that demanded every ounce of my concentration. I was forced to withdraw from school and redefine who I was as a person.
This accident has forced me to examine who I am as a person. During the accident, when I saw the car heading towards me a millisecond before impact, my last thoughts were not about my career options or my life as a grad student - my last thought was the achingly sweet look on my husband's face as I kissed him good-bye that morning. The idea that I might never see him again crushed my heart.
And so now I am at a point where my days are centered around my pathological fear of cars and the unsettling feeling that my life is no longer defined by how busy I am. Withdrawing from grad school has wreaked havoc on my self-esteem as I struggle to understand how I have changed in light of a near-death experience.
I am now re-examining my priorities in life. What I have discovered is that my priorities in life are centered around family. Once my life has settled down - once I am at a point where I can live a functional life again - I will return to school and the pursuit of a career. But when I do return, I will return with the attitude that although a career can be fulfilling, my full heart belongs to the people I love.