10 April, 2017
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It’s been just over a year since I ran away to join the circus in Brisbane (aka Medical School). I’ve learnt lots of things, and not just the contents of a stack of textbooks taller than me. It’s been quite the journey, so I thought I might share some of my more entertaining adventures and lessons.
When I first started med school I had no idea what to expect. And oh gosh I wish I’d had something like Sarah’s blog when I started! It all started innocently enough – an entire week of orientation. ‘Easy’, I thought. Little did I know that the hard work would start right away! Umpteen forms to submit, things to get signed, ID cards to collect. Hand Washing! I think I will spend my whole life learning and being assessed on how I wash my hands. But as it turns out, it’s vitally important – so start doing it properly now! Assessments even before the semester had started. Don’t forget to go to the trade shows! Enough free pens to last me the year! Well, a semester maybe.
And then – because there’s not really enough time in a 16 week semester – the lectures started early! These introductory lectures were actually some of the most important of the year. Oh, I’m not talking about the 3 different lectures on how to use the library and how to search databases, though that did come in handy! Once. I’m talking about the foundational concepts – embryology, infection and inflammation, physiology and anatomy introductions. These lectures were enormously helpful, especially for those of us who hadn’t studied much science before or not looked at our notes for a while.
After that, the real fun starts. My program, at least, is broken into four subjects per semester – and they remain the same for the first 2 years. Clinical science covers everything there is to know about health and disease – anatomy, physiology, pathology, histology, clinical presentation, pharmacology, management – the list goes on. Clinical Practice on the other hand is everything to do with a patient – how to talk to them, how to examine them, what to say, how to act (and how not to act! “wow” is not an appropriate response to anything a patient tells you. Ever.), plus all the important procedures and skills, like taking blood pressures, resuscitation. Then there’s a subject on ethics and law every semester and another on ‘Health and Society’, which covers everything from public health to research and the health needs of different communities. All of these classes have lectures and tutorials and practicals and seminars and workshops – it’s pretty much a 9 to 5 timetable. And then you have to add on the homework! Readings and reports, physical examination practice and interviewing your friends, assignments and essays and presentations and patient summaries. There’s your 50+ hour week right there!
Eventually however, you find your rhythm. You settle in, learn to triage the enormous amounts of work you get every single day. Is it more important to do this reading, or prepare for my anatomy prac? I’m hoping this is good practice for work in a real hospital one day!
Now that I’ve scared you all off, let me tell you about some of the amazing things that happen in your first year at med school.
Firstly, the friends you make - these will be the people you study with, work with, and maybe even live with for the rest of your lives. Well maybe not live with forever. I’m hoping to not stay in share houses for that long. Sorry Fam! Not only do you make friends in your classes - you may end up with the same tutorial group for all classes for the whole year - but there is so much to do outside of medicine. Cocktail parties, balls, volunteering, sports, the opportunities are endless. I was told before starting med school that med students work hard and play hard. This is as true as you make it, on both counts. Med Students are big on socialising - but I was grateful to learn this didn’t just mean drinking! The socialising and bonding that happens at these events was vital to my survival of first year. You can’t work hard all the time! This was a challenge for me to learn - I’m not much of an extrovert around new people. But I couldn’t live without the friends I’ve made. Don’t forget about your friends and family from your previous life though. They’ll be there when med gets to be too much, or when you never want to see another gross, smelly human being ever again. These are the people you’ll go to when you need a break from med school. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Takes a whole lot of villages and communities to raise a doctor.
Caffeine. It will be your friend. And your enemy. Use it wisely. Sleep is for the weak, and for those that don’t have a case presentation and a tonne of reading due tomorrow. But it’s also for the people that don’t want to make a fool of themselves in front of their doctor/tutors at 8am on a Saturday morning - really not a good look falling asleep in a tiny tute of 10 people. I rapidly learned my perfect caffeine blood concentrations - enough to stay awake to finish the day, but not enough that I lose out on sleep!
Exercise is also your friend. First and foremost, it makes you feel good. The only reason I have motivation to write this blog now, after 8 hours straight at uni in the world’s most uncomfortable chairs, is the laps I just swam. Exercise simultaneously recharges and re-energizes you, and also exhausts you so you can get that crucial sleep. Have I mentioned how much I like sleep? Plus, you know, apparently it does good things for your health. You learn things like that at med school. Also I’ve learnt how to cook veggies in under five minutes. A vital skill. Physician Heal Thyself! But also Treat thyself. Like the bowl of chocolate brownies, raspberries and ice cream I just polished off. It really was a long day!
Did I mention the learning? At first this was the most daunting part of med school. How can I learn all of this information? What if the name of that one gene that causes 1% of this incredibly rare disease is all that stands between me and saving my patient’s life?!?! Well, it turns out, it probably never will. So I learned to stop sweating over the tiny details, and learnt to enjoy… well… learning. I learnt to approach my study with passion - and learnt to learn well. Now, I can’t get enough. Hours drawing anatomy diagrams, reading passages from textbooks to friends, even listening to medical podcasts on my commute - shout out to my favourite Humerus Hacks!
Now, to finish, let’s talk about perpetual motion. I know this is a blog about med school, not physics, but stay with me. Personally, med school was never on my to do list growing up. Teacher? Yes. Paramedic? Maybe? Vet? Almost always. Teacher? Only if I could choose the kids! It turns out, if you combine those things, you pretty much end up with ‘Doctor with pets’. Right up until I sat GAMSAT® Exam and got my first rejection letter, I wasn’t convinced this was what I really wanted. And then my heart broke. Turns out, this is something that I did really want. I had discovered, after 23 years, that medicine was for me. So hang in there if you’re sitting your GAMSAT® Exam in your mid to late 20s! Or later! Still, there are times when I’m not convinced I belong (this is where all those friends save the day). A year later I still find myself oscillating between ‘THIS IS AWESOME, why didn’t I do this sooner, I actually understand this stuff!’ (though the last one is a little more rare) and ‘Oh gosh, what am I doing with my life, I know none of the things, why are the letting me be a doctor?!?’ Turns out, this self-doubt or imposter syndrome is not all that uncommon. You’ve just got to keep turning back to that positive side. And if you can master this you’re well on your way to being a great doctor. Doctors need a little self doubt. Not enough to constantly be second guessing yourself. Just enough to always be working harder, never taking your skill and knowledge for granted.
The most important thing I’ve learnt after a whole year at med school? I’m going to be an amazing doctor! Well, maybe after that coffee.