Surviving Medical School: The First Year

 I write this entry with these people in mind: my unborn child, who [might] consider being a physician someday, for my future students [mwahahahahahaha!], and for myself, that I may be reminded of who I was as a student.

The Question: Why go to MedSchool?

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Before we get down to business, there’s something that one must consider first before embarking on the journey of extended adolescence: why should I go to medschool? In my experience, there are two broad categories of people who go to medschool. The first group are the ones who go in it without the desire to be there in the first place. Such people are the ones who were “coerced” by their parents or peers, those who are in it for the title or the money or the respect that the profession gives. The second group are the ones who go in it and hunger to be there. These people literally saved up money from their past profession just to continue in their pursuit of medical knowledge. These people are crazy, but passionate in their intentions.

I can say that I am part of the second group. I can say to people: “I chose to become a doctor.” I’ve also met like-minded people who say the same statement, and we are all in a consensus that darn it, Med School is hard! If it’s hard for us who want to study Medicine, how much harder would it be for those who don’t? I’ve had many times when I asked myself: “What am I doing with my life? I could be [insert long list of things given up for medschool]…” But at the end of the day, my passion to learn sustains me. Talking to people of the first group, recurrent themes of surrender keep popping up. Not that we of the two groups differ in aptitude; we are of the same playing field, but what differentiates us from one another is that tiny little sliver of passion continuously urging us forward.

In my opinion, aptitude isn’t the prime determinant of a successful physician. No matter how high one’s grades were in college, what titles one may have acquired, and what grades one has during the course of the year, it will all fall to dust without the right attitude.

So take a breather. Which group do you belong to? If you belong to the first group, you may want to rethink your decisions before committing. Medical school is expensive, and it will have multiple trade-offs that might make you miserable in the long run. If you belong to the second group, rethink your decision. This decision will cost you five years of your life in study alone, and more years for specialization. Given my current status as a medical student, I am not in a position yet to say if it will be worth it. Talking to someone who is already a physician may be more helpful in this regard. Maybe I’ll write about it in the future.

Ready…

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Going to medical school is akin to running a marathon. A marathon that seemingly has no end. It’s easy to get burnt out if you don’t take care of yourself. I know, since I’ve burnt out lots of times already, for reasons I would like to share. There are areas in your life that you might neglect, thinking to yourself: “Meh, I’m studying to be a doctor. Those things can wait.” This is a big mistake, and doing so can cause you to have a 180 degree paradigm shift.

1. Take care of your health

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One of the greatest paradox of the health professions is that we fail to take care of ourselves. In my studies, I’ve learned that health is wealth, but I haven’t been practicing what I preach. The ability to learn becomes more effective if the body is strong. The link  of the body to the mind is complex, and while people say that things can be taken “mind over matter”, the body can only take so much. In the course of my studies, I’ve learnt that you can’t cheat your body – the stomach will grumble, the eyes will droop, and the muscles will fatigue.

So, do things that keep you healthy – eat right (and regularly), exercise (regularly), sleep adequately, and keep clean. Energy is in short supply in medical school, and getting sick, among other things, will sap that vigor.

Besides the maintenance of physical health, you must also consider your mental health. One of the best (and worst) things in becoming a doctor is becoming a hypochondriac, and you tend to become more careful with yourself. So you’ll know in yourself when you’re turning into a sociopath. Just don’t.

2. Network

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If it takes a village to raise a child, the same can be said for training to become a physician- it is not a battle fought alone, but a concerted effort by you, your family, your friends, your colleagues, and your patients. Support in the form of having someone to cry on, having people to party with, and people to help you learn is needed. Otherwise, you’ll go crazy.

3. Rest

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Did I mention that you need to sleep? Yeah, I did. You also need to rest every once in a while. That is not equivalent to sleep, by the way. By rest, I mean that which Stephen Covey defined poetically as “sharpening the saw” in one of his seven habits. Do something that you enjoy, may it be video games, going on dates, reading [non-medical] literature. Otherwise, you’ll go crazy.

Get Set…

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Hep! Before you take off, it’s important to know this: your progress in medical school will be uncertain. You will meet many hardships, and you will fail and you will succeed. But there is a way to succeed more, and fail less.

Sun Tzu, in his Art of War, once said: “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”

The knowledge of oneself is as important as knowledge of the torrential material that one will pore over in the course of medschool. Sun Tzu’s adage made me realize how jumping gung-ho into the fray cost me. I’d like to share what I’ve learned:

1. Know thyself.

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With regards to this element, it is important to answer the following questions:

  • How do I learn?
  • What are my study principles?
  • Woooh! Time for a reward!

How do I learn? There is no general method of studying that will be successful for everyone. Everyone is unique, and what may work for one may not work for another. Consider first what kind of learner are you. Are you a visual learner, an auditory learner, or a kinesthetic one? Doing so will allow you to adapt yourself to the material in the best way possible. The following link can help you determine what your predilection to learning would be.

Next, know when you work best. Some people are morning larks; others are night owls. What’s important is syncing the time of your best energy output to productivity. This means also knowing in yourself when to call it quits. In my experience, studying further than what my energy would allow not only deprived me of precious rest, but were also material that I tended to forget anyway. But there’s a [legal] workaround with that, by studying smart.

What are my study principles?  Stephen Covey’s suggestion to stick to one’s principles has been a life-changer for me. Not only has it made me into a better person, but it has also stirred me in the direction of growth. I’ve extended his suggestion towards learning, and I’ve come up with three principles for myself that I adhere to:

  • Put in my 20 miles per day – a friend referred me to a link that made me realize the value of putting in productive work. The article discusses the triumph of consistency over brute force. I’d recommend that you read it.
  • Simplify everything – the human body is nothing but simple. I have a hard time memorizing, so it helps me when I simplify stuff. Some stuff I’ve learned along the way is writing diagrams and flowcharts for long paragraphs. Thus, the blood supply of the upper extremity can be “simplified” into a two-page flowchart.
  • Integrate and correlate – the good thing about studying Medicine is that recurrent themes tend to pop up, and recognizing these patterns will help you a long way in decreasing the volume of material you’ll need to commit to memory. For example, knowing the way blood flows in the heart not only strengthens your knowledge of cardiac physiology, but also of the anatomy of the heart.

Woooh! Time for a reward! Finally, you should know what kind of rewards make you happy. Let loose every once in a while. Knowing that you put your back into your work makes those rewards sweeter, and spurs you on.

2. Know thy enemy

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In medschool, you have but one enemy: yourself. Your dreams only go as far as how much you’re willing to put into it.  I’ve thought before that my enemy was the pressure of time or the mountains of knowledge that had to be conquered.  The greatest enemy of the medical student is the self.

 

This is the double edged blade of Sun Tzu’s adage – besides knowing your abilities, you should also know your weaknesses. I personally have the bad habit of procrastinating, and it has led me to cramming stuff I could’ve not crammed. I would always ask myself: “Why did past me not [insert things past me would’ve done]?” and say, “never again.” And proceed to blow it off the next exam. I also know in myself that my performance really sucks if I’m not well rested or if I’m hungry. Knowing these weaknesses, I compensate. For my procrastination, there’s my habit of putting in my 20 miles a day. For those physical limitations, I accept them and take care of my body.

 

The medical student will also face lots of frustrations along the way. There will be (many) days that you feel like you studied hard for an exam, but will fail. There will be times when you will feel overwhelmed with the work you’ll have to do. There will be lots of times when you will be tired and sick and fed up with the intangible dream of being a doctor. There will be days when you will be defeated. Yet there will also be small victories: when you learn the topography of the heart by heart, when you meet friends who share your burdens, when you discover the inner workings of pathology, when you have that first party after the first exam, when you lay your head to rest knowing you did your best. I’ve had many times that I was frustrated with myself. But I bounce back, knowing that despite every loss I’ve suffered, I’m still up and kicking.

 

The medical student is not a stranger to competition. The environment in medschool is competitive. There will be pressure to succeed.  To this, I would just like to quote: “The race is not always to the swift, but to those who keep on running.” I always like to think that spending time on thoughts such as envy or greed saps the brain of its much needed power. Better to use those energies for productive work than mulling over things that are negligible in the grand scheme of things.

Go!

As you set out on your first year of medical school, you’ll notice three things about yourself. First, you’ll crack jokes that won’t be understood by anyone. The stress will make you turn to humor and to your beliefs to keep you sane. Second, you’ll have a penchant for food. As I write this I feel hungry already. Third, you’ll feel like an idiot all the time. If you don’t, then you’re not studying smart enough.

 

So go! Go after your dreams to become a physician. I’ll be seeing you along the way.
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7 Comments

  1. Was planning on making a similar post, nanliit naman ako sa sobrang deep nito!! Nyahahaa! Good job! Miss you Jian!! >:)<

    Reply
  2. jian5

     /  April 3, 2013

    Hey Sach! Hahaha, Med school made me grow up some more, metaphorically. My epiphyseal plates are unfortunately closed :)))

    Reply
  3. Such a great post!

    Reply
  4. Natália

     /  May 21, 2014

    I guess it’s just like you said that somewhere, sometimes you just need to get the feeling that your burden is shared by someone else.
    Is it strange that I thank you for writing this post? I was feeling really out of perspective just before I read your blog and post (just so you know, I found it by googling “how to stay sane in med school”, I guess that illustrates the whole thing), and now I feel a bit more focused. So, thank you! 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you for your kind words! People who want to be doctors sometimes forget that we’re all going to be team-mates in the medical field of the future. Medicine is not a career that can be conquered by one individual, but by the combined efforts of yourself, friends, families, and colleagues. I’m glad that my post helped you! You’re very welcome!

      Reply
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