In a few weeks’ time, our medical school will welcome into its fold a new batch of medical students. I know they’re excited. I also know that right now they are completely in the dark. They think they know what they got themselves into, but most of them don’t. I know that, because I’ve been there too.
I don’t have any doctors in my family, and I was too shy to go ahead and quiz anybody I didn’t know very well. So I got into medical school with very little actual information about what to expect. This paved the way for some surprises (such as the first time I learnt what the lecturer meant everytime he mentioned ‘doing a P.R.’. Had I been living in a cartoon world, there would have been a hole in the wall shaped just like me three seconds after that revelation.).
This is why I wanted to share some pearls of wisdom (apart from the very important ‘look up per rectal examination’) with you, the new recruits. I'll start with the very first advice I remember getting about medical school:
1) “You are not going to understand anything about anything for the first three months. That’s okay.” I still think that’s the best advice anyone could have given me. Entering medical school is confusing. It’s a whole new world. I could have panicked, but I had the knowledge that this was normal, that other people felt it too. I would get the hang of it in the end. And I did. So will you!
2) This is going to be tough. It needs to be said. You will not be prepared for the years ahead, no matter what you do. This will test you further than you’ve probably been tested before. But that’s okay too. Take up challenges one by one, work hard, and things will be fine. Nobody starts out ready to be a doctor. Doctors are made (pretty much like swords – in fire!). Prepare to be forged!
3) Forget personal boundaries and prejudices. If you are uncomfortable touching people intimately, or discussing sex, death and various body functions, or dealing with a particluar group of people...the bad news is; you have to do it. There is no way around it. The good news is; it gets easier. Once you steel yourself and do it once, twice, thrice – it will all become as natural as breathing. Hence the awkward dinner conversations regarding faeces and pestilence which will result in your mother banning you from speaking while she’s eating. Good times.
4) Do things your own way. Your friends may use those books, or may study in that place, or that way...but that doesn’t have to mean squat to you. Do not compare your methods with others. Find out what works for you. If a library suffocates you, go off to study on the grass somewhere. You can highlight your book a million different colours, or stick post-it notes till it can barely close, or make short notes or flow-charts or tables or diagrams. You can study alone or in a group. Whatever works for you. And if your friend comes up and mentions that he’s read the Paediatrics book twice already and you’re still halfway through your first reading...do not panic. His way of studying is probably different from yours – and as far as you know, maybe not as effective. Remembering this tip will save you many blinding moments of panic, and help you focus on what you need to do.
5) Medicine is awesome. I’m sure you think that, or you wouldn’t be starting the course right now. But believe me, there will be times when you doubt your decision. There will be times when you question your motivation, your strength, and even your sanity. These moments will usually come before major exams, when you feel that nothing in the world could possibly be worth the all-nighters, the stress, the feeling that your brain can’t possibly fit it all in (it can, because the brain is amazing). Those moments will pass. Not only that, but they will be overshadowed by other moments; when you will realize just how wonderful, interesting, and purely awesome this career is.
6) Travel. Travelling to international conferences and summer schools, or going for exchanges or electives is a unique experience. They are great ways to learn new things, experience other cultures and – very importantly – meeting up with medical students from all around the world. There are various opportunities for doing this, and it is worth exploring the ones available to you. Some are expensive, but others may be sponsored and accessible even to those with lower budgets, so do not let the financial aspect deter you from checking out your options! An elective is also a great opportunity to gain experience in something not easily available in your country. And it will definitely broaden your mind and give you new perspectives, especially if you come from a small country like I do!
7) Make friends. You will need them. You will moan with them, exchange advice with them, work with them. Some of them may be future colleagues. All of them will be the person who understands you the most for the next few years. Do not be that selfish person who only thinks about themselves, and does things purely for their own gain (and you will, alas, meet such people). Watch somebody’s back, because your own needs to be watched as well. You are not infallible, and you do not need to do this alone.
8) Take it seriously. This is not high school. You can’t slack off all year in the hope that you will learn everything from books later. If you could become a doctor just by buying the right books, you could do it at home. Medicine isn't a correspondence course, because you need to watch, observe, learn by doing and discussing. This applies to the pre-clinical years, but even more so once you have the privilege (for a privilege it is) to shadow doctors and go around hospital. Of course, there will be those who disappear during that first week, and only show up for exams. Those people are doing it wrong.
9) Be humble. Everybody can teach you something. Not just your lecturers, but your classmates, other healthcare professionals, and even students from other disciplines (who usually have more practical-based learning and know their way around a hospital by the end of their first year). And your patients, of course, are experts in the very subject you want to be most knowledgeable about...themselves.
10) It’s not all about medicine. It may sound cliche, but you will fall into this trap sooner or later. You may think you do not have the time for hobbies, or friends, or a social life. You do. It may not be as easy as it was before, and you may have to sacrifice here and there, but you do not need to become a one-dimensional human being. Explore other interests, keep contact with people outside your daily sphere (even if it is to meet up for drinks once in a blue moon). You will need that other point of view. Don’t lose it!
Of course, becoming a doctor is a journey that is different for everybody. The main focus to keep in mind, is that this is supposed to be a challenge...and that it’s worth it. Because I honestly think this is the best job in the world. You’ll love it too.
The last thing I want to say is: you can do it. You WILL do it. You are here now, and you are here to stay. Welcome to the jungle.