A number of anticipated changes have accompanied my transition from science undergrad to med student. Terms like diabetic nephropathy and thyroglossal duct cyst have become part of my everyday vocabulary. Concepts such as professionalism, differential diagnosis, patient interview, and empathy have been clearly defined and applied. And no part of the human body, from the thalamus in the brain down to the adductor hallucis muscle reaching the big toe, is mysterious to me.
But, anyone can tell you that with more education comes more knowledge. It’s the world of med school itself that is often misunderstood. Now, as a second year, I feel I have enough insider experience to dispel a few rumours about med students that made me worried before I saw for myself what goes on in their natural habitat.
Myth #1: After one year of studies, med students know everything and can address all of your health concerns.
False. We actually know very little. As second year med students who have yet to transition from classroom to hospital, we are cursed with the inability to be useful – although we want to be and feel we ought to be by this point.
Don’t get me wrong. We’ve learned a lot. Even if you take into account that approximately 70 per cent of what entered our brain before any given final is lost, the remaining 30 per cent is still the equivalent of thousands upon thousands of pages of information. However, if there is one thing med school teaches you, it’s that, regardless of how much information you absorb, you still won’t know very much. And, anyhow, what we get are cold facts that don’t quite yet translate to real-life. I may be able to name the muscles in the back, but that won’t help me explain why Aunt Vicky is having back pain. I may theoretically know about anti-hypertensive drugs, but my answer is always “I don’t know” when Uncle Tasso asks me if his doctor prescribed him the right stuff.
Myth #2: We’ve come a long way since high school and undergrad.
False-ish. Until you enter the hospital, med school – at McGill at least – is somewhat a continuation of any science undergrad experience: you go to class, go to the library, sleep when you can, live on caffeine, and fear, but still complete, multiple choice exam questions by the hundreds. However, to give us med students a little more credit, our dutiful filling in of scantron sheets is balanced by learning clinical skills – such as how to interview patients and perform certain steps of a physical exam. Not to mention that we’ve been warned by upper years that we have it easy. Long working hours in the hospitals are the next step.
But, for now, med school sometimes feels like high school all over again. We’re in class at least five hours a day, we see the same people, and everybody knows everybody else’s business. We may pretend that cliques are a thing of the past, but we still quickly learn who sits where with whom. At the front, you’ll find the most diligent people in a class composed of extremely studious and focused individuals. The professors’ questions never make it past those first few rows as these keeners (the so-called “gunners”) robotically spit out the answers without a second’s delay. The rest of us sometimes roll our eyes in frustration, but, often, we just let out a sigh of relief at being let off the hook. But when looking to size up the competition, we never dismiss those sleeping in the back left corner of the amphitheater. These cool kids (known as “snipers”) may have spent last night drinking heavily, but their undergrad degrees in physiology or anatomy, and the secret hours they spent studying before going out, ensure that they already know exactly what the professor is going on about.
Myth #3: Med students don’t have a life outside school.
False. Before I began med school, I had feared this would be the case. I had convinced myself that entering that classroom on the first day of school would automatically strip me of any right to a social life. I felt ready to make the necessary sacrifices. Little did I know that you could have it all. Somehow, just like in undergrad, you end up planning your studying around your social calendar and not the other way around. (Correction: This does not apply for the week to a week and a half leading up to any final, when life gets put on hold and your only wish is that your brain cells could magically multiply.)
Not only that, but I was surprised by how much we are encouraged to lead a balanced life. We’re told to define ourselves outside of medicine by having hobbies and friends so as not to only be branded as the ‘medical student’. We are also pushed to take care of our physical and mental health. Looking around at my classmates’ food during lunch hour makes me hide my chocolate bar in shame. Also, the gym is the place to be seen: classmates chat, organize squash tournaments, train for half marathons, lift weights, and practice guessing each others’ BMIs.
Myth #4: Every med student likes to wear a stethoscope all the time and act like a boss.
False. We may have to order stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs in the fall of our first year, but, contrary to popular belief, we do not accessorize all our outfits with them. Yes, stethoscopes do come in many fun colours and they do grab our attention, but they are actually just collecting dust in our closets for the time being.
We do think they’re awesome and occasionally take them out of their boxes to impress friends or family, but the truth is that we don’t quite know how to use them properly yet. We can’t risk wearing them out to the bar and attract attention were someone to choke on the olive in a martini. It’s safer to leave the bling at home until we can at least properly perform the Heimlich maneuver.
In my experience, rare are the individuals who let the title of medical student get to their head. The rule of thumb is that, to be in this program, you have to be hardworking and caring, with only a tiny dose of neurosis.
There you have it, the reality of med school. So, next time you encounter any of us, feel free to quiz us on the twelve cranial nerves. We’ll like that. For help with that migraine, though, please wait a bit longer. Our professors have promised we’ll get to that sometime in the next three years.