What could happen if you leave your comfort zone?

PFSP Perspectives

January 5, 2018

Fernando Mejia, MD, PGY3 | Public Health and Preventive Medicine, University of Calgary

Contributed by: Fernando Mejia, MD, PGY3 | Public Health and Preventive Medicine, University of Calgary

Everyone has a comfort zone, which in this context represents a mental or physical state (or in some cases a combination) where we feel 100% in control. Most of the time, a comfort zone is created unconsciously as a result of developing certain habits and skills that allow us to know exactly what needs to be done to obtain a desired outcome.

Although there is nothing wrong with living in a comfort zone, have you asked yourself what could happen if you get out of it? I think it’s worthwhile to purposely challenge ourselves and explore beyond the boundaries of our comfort zone, as we might face experiences that would broaden our view point, understanding or meaning of certain things in life.

Leaving my comfort zone

Twelve years ago, I decided to leave my comfort zone. After almost a decade of a rewarding general practice in Colombia, where I finished medical school, I opted to leave my comfort zone by immigrating to Canada. My goal was to have a completely different life experience, and what could be better than going to a new country where even the language was going to be a new challenge?

I remember coming to Calgary in the middle of the winter (not a very smart decision!) with my wife and my daughter, who was five years old at the time. We chose Calgary because some friends told us that it was booming at that time and there were lots of opportunities for newcomers. They said Alberta was a province so rich that the government was sharing the surplus, sending cheques to people. (Do you remember getting a special cheque from the Government of Alberta in 2006? Unfortunately I did not qualify as I came by the end of 2005). My friends set my expectations so high that I did not think twice about it. Now I realize how important that was to starting my journey, as having high expectations was the main reason to move on when I had to start from scratch.

Fortunately, what they said turned out to be true and just a week after arriving I was working! As a matter of fact, I had a full-time and a part-time job! You may ask: As a doctor? Well, not even close to that ... I was hired full-time at a retail store (working in shipping and delivery) and part-time at a convenience store (whose manager was a foreign doctor too). To be honest, those were not the kind of jobs I was expecting to have, but I needed to support my family, and I could not work on anything related to health care as I did not have a license or adequate English communication skills. At that time I did not know it, but there was a long road to get back to my medical career.

The long road

Time went by and after many English courses and job experiences, I started to improve my language skills (still a work in progress). My continued search for something better allowed me to find a job with a group of ophthalmologists working as an ophthalmic technician (the person in charge of making the visual assessment prior to the check with the eye specialist). In that office, all the technicians were international medical graduates (IMGs), one of them an ophthalmologist. That was the place where I heard for the first time about the Canadian medical licensure process and how difficult it was to obtain a medical license. Although the income was not the best, I decided to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by this job, such as interacting with the medical staff and patients, performing visual exams, creating medical notes and improving my communication skills in a professional environment.

As some of my co-workers were active in the licensure process, I asked for some guidance and opted to start my application process with the firm decision that I would persist until achieving my medical license. My only option was to work during the day and spend evenings at the public library preparing for the Medical Council of Canada (MCC) exams. After three years of failing these exams multiple times and spending a significant amount of money (which I borrowed from a line of credit), I passed the MCC exams required to apply to medical residency programs through the Canadian Resident Matching Service (CaRMS).

While passing the MCC exams was very challenging, the hardest part of my process was getting matched through CaRMS, because the number of spots available to IMGs is small, it is very competitive, and every province has its own restrictions and conditions.

Tough decisions

As my line of credit reached the limit, I realized I had to look for a better income, so I decided to apply for another job. I took advantage of my previous work experience in the pharmaceutical industry and found a full-time job as marketing coordinator in a multi-national health insurance company. Even though I could improve my income, the downside was that I was going to be out of the health care field. It was a tough decision to make, but the well-being of my family was more important than my personal goal. That did not mean I was going to quit, but somehow I had to find the way to work during the day and continue studying and volunteering in the evening to have observerships with local doctors and stay close to practice.

After a few years working in that insurance company, I got the approval to work more hours a day so that I could have one week day off that I could dedicate to observerships, one of which was in a supervised clinical practice that allowed me to get good letters of reference (a crucial component of the CaRMS application).

I applied through CaRMS consistently for four years with no result, not even an interview! Every year, I struggled to fulfill requirements and pay application fees. I would lie if I said I didn’t consider quitting. I was very fortunate to have my wife's support every time I failed, and after dealing with my frustration I always tried one more time. Was it easy to do? Certainly not, but I had put so much effort, time and money into that process that I could not leave without getting the big reward.

Waiting game

Finally in 2015, after five years applying through CaRMS, I got an interview, which I prepared for with my heart and soul, knowing this was an all-or-nothing day. I spent hours visualizing myself doing a great interview, responding appropriately to any type of question and obtaining the desired outcome. When I finished that interview, I had that inner satisfaction knowing I truly did my best, but the competition was tough because there were other candidates with better backgrounds and experiences than mine.

I patiently waited two months for the matching day, and asked my wife to be with me at the time of checking the final result. My daughter, who was always aware of my challenging journey said she wanted to be there too, so she stayed with us. At 10 a.m. on matching day, the three of us got together in front of the computer, holding hands to check my CaRMS result. With mixed feelings of excitement and fear, I clicked on the link to find that I had matched with the program of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the University of Calgary.

It has been one of the happiest days in my whole life, as I reached that goal after eight years of pure persistence from writing my first MCC exam until getting matched. I still remember my daughter saying loudly, "Dad, we made it!" Feeling that happiness was enough to pay off all my eight years of struggles.L to R: Maria Mejia, Marianna Mejia and Dr. Fernando J. Mejia. What can you learn from Dr. Mejia and his family about leaving your comfort zone?

Take the first step on your journey

It has been three years since then. Despite many obstacles and challenges, I have been able to move forward enjoying every moment of my residency training. I have learned so much from many people including preceptors, teachers, fellow residents and patients. I have realized that the most important thing is not to reach the goal; what really matters is the person you become during that journey.

I wanted to share my story to encourage you to get out of your comfort zone. I challenge you to leave your fears aside and embark on the adventure of your life. Whether this is starting a new venture, moving to another place to start a new life or doing that trip you have delayed for years. I want you to make that decision and take the first step now!

Think about this: If not now, when? If not you, who? I promise you: once you take that first step, your life will never be same!

These five tips might help you to start your journey.

    1. Define exactly what you want to achieve and why.
    2. Identify small steps that will take you to achieve that goal.
    3. Start to implement those steps now (not tomorrow) and track your progress regularly.
    4. Be grateful for whatever you have now.
    5. Last but not least, make the decision to be happy now (not tomorrow when you achieve the goal).

Do not hesitate to reach out if you think I could help. It would be a privilege to help you through your journey.

PS: This is dedicated to my wife, Maria, to my daughter, Marianna, and to those IMGs who made the decision to leave their comfort zone to pursue a better future in this wonderful country.

The Alberta Medical Association stands as an advocate for its physician members, providing leadership & support for their role in the provision of quality health care.