I recently wrapped up my first two years of medical school, essentially my entire pre-clinical education. I still have to get through step one before I officially move on to rotations so I’m not letting myself completely celebrate yet but I do want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned thus far on this journey. Most medical schools in the U.S. have two years in mostly in the classroom, learning the ins and outs of the human body and all the ways it can quit on us. The third and fourth year are done in a clinical setting: hospitals, doctor’s offices, etc. As with most people who want to go into medicine, I’m here for the interaction with patients and helping them to better their lives – not to sit in classrooms and at our desks for hours on end trying to cram as much information in our brains as possible. But as with anything worth having, we’ve all gotta struggle a little. So below are some of the lessons I’ve learned in the many, many hours spent studying and trying to get through the madness.
- Remember why you’re here. So much of why I blog is to stay grounded and remind me of how far I’ve come and how much further I still have to go. I often read my personal statement to remind myself of my journey thus far. I have the oath we took the day of our white coat ceremony taped on our bathroom mirror to remind me what a privilege this is and what a huge responsibility I have to learn as much as possible.
- Have perspective. Remember that you’re spending endless hours of studying because you will one day be the responsible for caring for people during some of the most difficult moments in their lives. This is a huge responsibility. You, of course, need to do everything necessary to take care of yourself but remember that people are depending on us to know what we need to know to care for them.
- Maintain balance in your life. Your entire life cannot be about medical school, especially in the first two years when you actually have a lot of free time if you plan your days well. It’s important to do things to retain your sanity and take care of your own health. Eat well, exercise, read, watch movies, etc. Do everything you want and need to make sure you’re centered and ready to learn. When you invest time in taking care of yourself, your studying will become much more efficient and you won’t have to spend the entire day going over the same lecture.
- It’s okay that every day doesn’t feel good. There will be (seemingly too many) days when you’ll question why you’re paying thousands of dollars to spend your days studying. But there will also be days when you’ll realize how amazing the human body is. Days when you see patients and they’re so grateful that you’re spending a little extra time trying to figure out what’s going on with them. Days when you learn something in lecture and then go to clinic later that day and see someone surviving, with great quality of life, the same illness because of the work done by those who came before you. You’re entering a noble profession but path to getting there won’t always feel noble.
- Reflect on your intentions and your happiness often. While it’s normal to have days or maybe even weeks of feeling like you’re in over your head, make sure you check in with yourself every month or so and reflect on how you’re doing. If you’re feeling depressed or anxious or just plain unhappy with where you are, please talk to someone. There is absolutely no reason for you to continue feeling this way. Medical students are at much higher risk for depression and suicidal ideation than the general population.
- Find mentors you trust. This is something that I’m still working on but you have to realize that in every professional setting, you will not click with everyone and that’s okay. Finding a mentor to talk to about a certain issue is kind of like knowing which friend to go to depending on what you need out of the conversation. If you want someone to tell it like it is, go to the person you know will be honest with you no matter what happens. If you’re looking for someone to remind you why you’re working so hard and that you can do this, go to the person who will be be supportive and compassionate. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll find a mentor (or a few) who can do both and know when you need which. Mentoring relationships should never start with the question ‘will you be my mentor?’ I’ve never asked that question of a single person I consider a mentor. Instead, ask a question regarding their life or work or something you need advice on and based on the way they respond, you’ll know if this person is a potential mentor. This type of relationship should unfold naturally.
- Find your village, hold them close and thank them often. I’ve said this before and I’ll keep saying it: it takes a village to raise a doctor. It takes a village of people who love you, support you, remind you of why you’re doing all this – that the sacrifices are worth it, and understand why you can’t always be around. I truly believe that God puts something special in the people who support doctors in training. This, unfortunately, also means that you’ll likely lose some people in your life because they may need more attention than you can provide at this moment in your life and that’s fine. It’s difficult but it’s honestly a part of growing up. Not everyone is meant to stay in your life forever. But those who do choose to go on this wild journey with you, hold them close and make sure they know how much you love and appreciate them.
Medical school is no joke. So many people told me beforehand that the hardest part is getting in. And it’s completely true that I worked very hard to get to where I am today, but it’s also true that the ‘hardest part’ varies from person to person. Some people thrive in the first two years because they have studying and exam taking down. I’m not that person so the past two years have felt nearly impossible and I’ve thought about quitting more often than I’d like to admit. But I truly believe that all of this is worth it, that my aspirations will be confirmed next month when I’m back in clinical settings and spending the majority of my day with patients. And it’s entirely possible that I may be wrong but I’ve already put in several years towards this goal so what’s another couple months?
I’m taking step one early next week so positive vibes and prayers are greatly appreciated!
I wish I remember how I stumbled upon this incredible text, but I honestly don’t. Nonetheless, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that in many ways Dr. Christine Montross’ Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab got me through the first year of medical school.
I’ve been very open about how anatomy lab was and still is one of the most transformative and difficult experiences of my life, both as a subject of study and emotionally. When I first began studying anatomy, I did recognize the great privilege it was to study the human body from this perspective. I was almost unspeakably grateful to those who donated their bodies so that my colleagues and I could become better healers. But when we first started dissections in October of last year, I did not understand how integral this experience was for me as a physician in training. I did not understand why I was learning about how to ‘save lives’ by studying the dead. I felt traumatized. Every time I stepped into anatomy lab, I simultaneously felt grateful, sad and anxious. Everything felt so unnatural. I knew rationally that the cadavers felt no pain during our dissections but that did not prevent me from wincing at the sound of each rib cracking or a saw cutting through bone.
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This piece is the second in my series about my experience in anatomy lab during my first year of medical school. The first piece in this series can be found here.
I wrote both these pieces as a means to reflect on and normalize what I was feeling on the first day of anatomy lab and during a dissection I found to be particularly difficult, emotionally. Now that I’m finished with my first year of medical school, I look back and I’m even more grateful to have had this experience. Death, ironically, will always be a part of life but being in this field we have to work even harder to healthily cope with this reality. While the point of anatomy lab was to teach us about the human body in a tangible way, all the cadavers were the ultimate teachers about both life and death. From them, I learned what a heart, my heart one day and likely the hearts of future patients, looks like when it’s no longer beating. From them, I felt the weight of a cirrhotic liver. From them, I saw what a ‘smoker’s lung’ actually looks like. But from them, I also learned the muscles I use to type this sentence. They are the reason I can feign x-ray vision and imagine my muscles, tendons and bones working together as I hit each key. They are the reason I marvel at all my nieces and nephews as they grow and learn to walk and speak and think. They are the template for every patient I will see in my career as a physician.
It’s been just over a month since we finished anatomy lab and said goodbye to our cadavers. Thank you, great teachers, for your final sacrifice. I hope that you have finally found rest and ‘burst into light.’
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Congratulations to all you incoming first years!! It really is such a great accomplishment that you’ve made it this far. Welcome to the beginning of your professional career! It’s going to be quite a ride and you’ll probably go through an entire spectrum of emotions on a daily basis but it really is all worth it if you’re here for the right reasons. Below I’ve included some advice on how to prepare for the first year of medical school.
Some resources I found to be really helpful were:
- First Aid – It helped me put everything into the context of the “big picture.”
- Essential Anatomy – The app is really helpful for visualizing the muscles and studying origins/insertions/function/innervation/irrigation, especially when you’re not physically in the anatomy lab.
- Notability or OneNote – Most of my classmates used either Notability or OneNote for taking notes but I’m not that tech savvy and I learn most when I write things out. And since most of our lecturers used PowerPoints or PDFs of the lectures, I took notes directly on those in class and made one page handwritten outlines for each lecture at home afterwards.
The best way to figure out study methods/materials is to talk to second years in your program. Study methods vary greatly depending on if you’re on a block schedule or if you’re taught by subject. Remember that what works for someone else may not work for you and that’s completely okay. And also remember that there will be times (sometimes every day) when you feel like everyone knows everything and you’re the dumbest person in the class. Let me tell you a secret: everyone in your class feels that way, even the gunners. Don’t let it freak you out. Just do you and help out your classmates when you can. Ask for help when you need it. There’s no shame in needing others. Most medical schools are very different from the “every person for themselves” mentality that most of us are used to from undergrad. Sure you’ll have a couple of those annoying people but for the most part you work as a team so learn to lean on your cohort when you need it.
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This is the first in a two-part series of reflections on my time in the anatomy lab during my first year in medical school. It was written after my first day in anatomy lab and reading it even after all this time, and having finished my first year, I can still feel everything I felt on that first day. I’ve had quite a love-hate relationship with the anatomy course this past year but reflecting back now, I know that it has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I can say with full confidence that it will allow me to become a better healer in the future.
To those who donated their bodies so we could learn to become better healers: thank you for this selfless and final sacrifice. You have all been the best teachers about both life and death. And for that, I will always be grateful and indebted to you. Thank you.
“Now I am a student of medicine, a field with its own great paradoxes. The first of these I encountered in the anatomy class and is still one of the most powerful: that you begin to learn to heal the living by dismantling the dead.” – Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Dr. Christine Montross
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Firstly, I just wanted to share with you all that I passed my exam!! I’m officially a second year medical student!! Thank you so so much to all of you who reached out with love and support. It truly means so much and I’m so grateful. And so excited to finally enjoy summer!
Before moving on, I just wanted to quickly share what I usually wear to non-clinical finals/exams. The name of the game is definitely comfort in these instances because you don’t want anything to cause you to lose focus. I purchased this t-shirt from an online Islamic clothing store called 5ivepillars a few months ago and have worn it to every final ever since. Actually now that I think of it the only time I forgot to wear it was the musculoskeletal exam and I failed that one, so…
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