Surviving Medical School: The Fourth Year a.k.a. Clerkship

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. This is the fourth part of the series.

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uerm.edu.ph

Congratulations! Third year of medical school was hell, and by surviving it, you are surely on your way to becoming a physician. You are now going to begin your clinical years, earning the experience needed to function in any setting.

When we were having our orientation at the start of my clerkship year, all of my seniors succinctly described it using this statement: “Ito ang pinakamasayang year na ayaw nyo nang ulitin.” [“This will be the happiest/funnest/best year you’ll experience that you never want to go through again.”] I kept thinking about the meaning of this statement as I went along the journey that has been this year, and only in retrospect will it be clear why.

This is the year you will experience this rite of passage for all doctors.

This year, you will be deep in the trenches, fighting in the front lines of our war against suffering and disease. You will deliver babies, you will perform minor surgery, you will perform your basic medical interventions to your heart’s content, you will talk to and examine endless numbers of patients, you will educate you patients on their diseases, you will persuade your patients to take their medications, you will perform CPR, you will hold the hand of the dying, you will talk with those who all hope is beyond reach. You will experience the highs and lows of your budding medical career; you will share in the triumphs of your patient and medical team; you will share their sadness and their pain. Friendships will be formed, and friendships will be tested.

You will find yourself in the best and the worst of times, so get ready!

Mission Briefing

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Cavite, 1898: A medic attends to a wounded Filipino soldier (peopleus.blogspot.com)

Clerkship is a 1-year “on-the-job” training, where you will rotate in the various disciplines of Medicine, namely, Internal Medicine, Surgery, Obstetrics-Gynecology, Pediatrics, Psychiatry, Ophthalmology, Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Neurology, and Community Medicine.

Your rotation will revolve around the “Pre-Duty-From” schedule. Pre-duty schedule is from 7AM to 5PM. Duty schedule is 7AM to 7AM the following day. From schedule is 7AM (following duty status) to 12PM. Pre-duty is like Sunday, feeling as if it’s before the weekdays. Duty is the weekdays, where you will grind yourself to work. From-duty is like Saturday, where you’ll get to rest. The concept of a 7-day week will transform into a 3-day week, as you will discover.

Before you start clerkship, know that this will be the year that you will discover what kind of doctor you are. Wordsworth once wrote: “The child is father to the man.” The medical intern is father to the physician.

I want you to be the best doctor you can be, but only you can make yourself so. Before you start, set your goals for yourself this year. These were mine:

  1. Learn the common diseases, their epidemiology, pathophysiology, management and prognoses.
  2. Communicate effectively with the patient and the medical team.
  3. Become skilled in the basic medical interventions (Life support, IV therapy, surgical skills, etc.)
  4. Discover how to listen more effectively to my patients and colleagues.
  5. Develop common sense.
  6. Develop compassion.
  7. Network with colleagues and friends.
  8. Accept failure, defeat, surrender.
  9. Stand again after every failure.

Ten-Hut!

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1899: Regular soldiers of the Philippine Revolutionary Army stand at attention for an inspection (explorer-philippines.com)

Preparation is key to surviving the war in the clinics.

  1. Take care of yourself. Remember to eat healthy, get good rest (if you can, that is, without being a slacker or a liability to the team), keep yourself well-groomed. The stresses you will face this year will test you, so build a good physical foundation to mount your offense.
  2. Take care of yourself, please. I forgot to mention that you should also take into consideration your emotional and spiritual well-being. Burn-out is common during this time, and you’ll need your support systems to back you up.
  3. Get the right equipment. If you haven’t bought the equipment to function effectively, do so now. Invest in good equipment – your stethoscope, sphygmomanometer, thermometer, pulse oximeter, etc.; you’ll be using it for the rest of your professional life. One thing I want to emphasize is to buy good shoes. Do not skimp on good shoes! I destroyed 4 pairs of shoes this year. The worst enemy that will gnaw at you at the end of the day will be your sore feet.
  4. Read your manual, and attend the orientation. Your medical school will probably provide you with a house staff manual or a handbook. Read it. It will save you a lot of trouble in the future. Attending the orientation wouldn’t hurt as well.
  5. Read up on the common cases in the clinics. You should always strive to arrive in the clinics knowledgeable and eager. Easier said than done, but do try.

In the Trenches

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Manila, 1941: The first “Women Guerilla” corps (theatlantic.com)

It is hard to describe how the typical day of a medical intern goes. Your day will either be benign, in between, or in hell. The level of “toxicity” will depend on the rotation, as some rotations are more demanding than others as you will learn; on your team mates, as you will see them at their best, and at their worst; and on yourself, as you will also be at your best and at your worst.

Expect anything, and expect everything.

The experiences you will face here will be unique. I have found some common tenets to live by to survive. Some of these I learned from my mentors, some I learned by making mistakes. I’d like to credit Dr. Miggy Unabia for some of them as well, as I based some of these from a post he wrote for us before our clerkship year started:

  1. Think of the patient first. It is our vow to put our patient’s welfare and well-being first before anything else. I know I wrote earlier to take care of yourself, but you will have to accept that you will make a lot of sacrifices from here on onward. You will feel dizzy of hunger, you will feel irritable of thirst, you will complain of sleep deprivation, you will feel the need to pee but can’t, you will feel depressed and burnt out. The patient feels twice, thrice, or more suffering that what you’re suffering. They look to you for help. They may not show gratitude. They may even shout at you and curse you. You will feel frustrated. Yet our promise to serve humanity is our ultimate purpose.
  2. Be civil to everyone. Clerkship will put you in close proximity to people. People who you respect and will most likely refer patients to in the future. People who disgust you and feel disappointed for. People who you will work with for a year, or possibly a lifetime. We had this story of an intern who was approached by an old lady, dressed in simple clothing, who was asking about a patient. The intern, who was under stress at the time, was brusque in his reply, only to be met by the seething bite of an offended consultant.
  3. Don’t be a doormat. Then again, don’t be afraid to stand up for what is right. If there is a problem, isolate the person you have a problem with, and fix it among yourselves. Never humiliate anyone. Sadly, there are some people you can never seem to get along with. You can’t please everyone, and you will have to accept this fact. At some point, you will need to hurt some people to avoid a lot of pain in the future. At some point, you will need to call out the bullshit on your colleagues to make them better doctors.
  4. Have initiative. Clerkship is the best time to learn how to be a great doctor. Use all of your senses. Observe how physicians you admire communicate with the patients, and discard the bad behavior of those who do not. Ask questions (In a respectful way! In the right setting!), occasionally challenging your consultants. Read the patient charts, get to know their cases, read up on their disease. Update yourself on their clinical course. Take a look at the patients, politely examine them, talk to them, see them as people. I would have to admit that my best teachers were my patients. I learned how to do effective colostomy care from Ms. GO, how to act when suspecting a stroke from Mr. ME, how to analyze psychosocial conflicts from the AG twins. When I see a case, I see the patients I had the chance to meet. Meet as many patients and doctors as you can, and learn from them.
  5. Have a sense of urgency. This is a job where your actions can mean life or death, and a minute could be minute too late. I think it is best that when you are confronted with a task, assess its importance and urgency, and prioritize accordingly. The Eisenhower matrix is a good means for decision making in this setting, and I recommend you to study it as a guide.
  6. Endorse properly. Proper endorsement is an art that I admit I still need to develop. At first, you will endorse poorly, but over time, you will learn how communicate properly as a doctor to another doctor. There is nothing more irritating in the medical world than to receive an endorsement of a patient who is relayed to you as just a room number and the type of monitoring interval required. Go beyond that. Your goal is to make the patient be seen not as a case, but as a person. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to give written endorsements just to remove any further misunderstanding and make your instructions clear.
  7. Always consult with your superiors before doing any major interventions. At this point in time, you will be the grunt in the war, so you’ll have a lot of superiors breathing down your neck. Always inform them of the status of the patients, and if you have any interventions you plan to do, especially those concerning administering medications and any invasive procedures. You don’t have a license yet, so it is wise to ask, no matter how stupid the question may be; a life depends on it. Besides, your superiors have their own superiors too, and if you mess up, you’ll get them into trouble. Keep the peace and choose your battles wisely.

 Move Out!

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Waters off Palawan, 2015: Armed Forces of the Philippines board a landing craft air cushion

This year you will discover yourself. You will marvel at how you are able to stand without eating or sleeping for hours. You will marvel at your ability to go to work even when you’re sick. You will pull out creative solutions out of nowhere when everything seems hopeless. You will be frustrated for your mistakes and your failures. You will be burnt out and you will be depressed. You will feel like your life is not going anywhere, that you are stuck in the rut in the gears of life.

You will make a difference in the lives of other people.

You will become a great doctor.

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gettyimages.com

Never forget this year. This year, you are the grunt, at the bottom of the food chain. As much as it is hard to admit, the caring profession is unfortunately uncaring to those who practice it. There will be times when you will feel injustice done against you by other doctors, by the staff, by your colleagues. You will feel frustrated and disappointed in yourself, in others, and in your profession. You will feel anger and sadness at this reality. Discard their ways and use them as a guide on what not to be on your way to becoming a physician.

It is time to change the uncaring culture of Medicine, and it begins with you. This is the time not only to learn how to be a great doctor, but also to develop yourself into a decent human being. Become the doctor the world desperately needs: a doctor with a sharp and focused mind, gentle and caring hands, and a compassionate and understanding heart.

You will meet the best people and mentors this year. You will be inspired by their ability to keep calm under pressure, their unending vitality and vigor despite their lack of food or sleep, their warm and gentle guidance to you and to their patients. They will treat you as equals, and will listen to your opinions. They espouse the highest form of excellence and deserve the respect and love we give unconditionally. Use them as your guides towards progress and growth. Seek to become like them, and beyond.

I wish you all the luck and strength and wisdom for your fourth year! I will see you along the way.

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