“You know how Opa sometimes confuses your name? And not remember where he is? He has Alzheimer’s.”
The news was broken quickly and quietly, but it was of no surprise to anybody. Still, there was a helplessness in dad’s voice when he explained that there is nothing we can do except cherish the time we have left. I was almost sixteen – verging on my final years of high school, lost as to what exactly it was I wanted to do, drowned in the (still increasing) world of medical-themed dramas, and thought, “Hey, maybe I could fix this?”
Fast track five years and I am halfway through my medical degree, albeit with less conviction to finding the cure for dementia. But there were a number of things I wasn’t quite prepared for…
1. The bulk of your learning is from Wikipedia.
My lecturers are highly intelligent and experienced educators, but I suspect anyone will find it difficult to teach the entirety of brain function to 260 students in a one-hour lecture, even if it’s just “a brief overview” (which brings us to the debate regarding expenses surrounding medical education and funding, but that’s another article). Textbooks are often riddled with mistakes, and rambles too long about irrelevant points. Enter Wikipedia – fast and accessible. Even the registrars use it.
2. Don’t know the answer? Nobody really does.
Call me a nerd, but I was super excited by the prospect of knowing how the body works. And call me a gunner, but I gots to know! After all, uncertainty is a bitch. We’ve come a long way from the days of trusting a doctor’s every word, to today’s current trends where a patient – backed by Dr Google – could argue their way into a prescription. Sometimes though, both the internet and the doctors doesn’t know the answer – and it happens more commonly than you think. Uncertainty, however, is still a bitch.
3. Doctors argue like politicians. Which is to say, petty children.
Falling short of not knowing, doctors develop (generally) well-reasoned theories. So well-reasoned sometimes, that they simply won’t accept other theories. I’ve been to a cardiology meeting where two surgeons were arguing on the best technique on removing a clot from a patient’s heart, culminating with each surgeon attempting to sell their technique to the rest of the people at the meeting. Almost like a high school election campaign, except with somebody’s life at risk. Not to mention I only came for free food.
4. It is as much a business corporation as any other industry.
Out of all industries, I thought this is the one profession where your career progression is determined largely by your performance (academically, or say, I don’t know – the number of patients you successfully treat?). Needless to say, I was disappointed that much like law, commerce, anything really – whilst what you know helps, it’s more about who. Who you know, and who you’re willing to suck up to.
5. Your health will be harmed.
So there’s the normal university student health problems – poor diet, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, and too much drinking because, well, university student. Then there’s the anxiety from medical student disease, when you decide that you have whatever disease it is you were studying that week (I’ve been a bit clumsy, my vision is a bit weird, I feel really tired and I have slept 4 hours in the last 48 – I MUST HAVE MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS)*. Then there’s the formation of clots in the veins of your calves because you have been sitting and studying for too long – now that one, I’ve really only heard amongst medical students.
*not meant to be offensive to those with MS. Simply chosen as it is a disease that is hard to detect, due to vague symptomology.
6. You will begin to question your sense of humanity.
I have seen a surgeon who, in an attempt to wake a patient with a recent total knee replacement, decided to squeeze the recently operated knee and responded to their groans of agony with “Get up, we need you walking today”. At 6.30 am. The day after surgery. Later commenting on what a lazy bastard that patient is. I’ve also seen the geriatrics team take bets on which nil-by-mouth patient will die first. As medical students, we identify patients by their signs. All actions which, day by day, makes you question whether you are treating the person, or treat the disease.
7. Social isolation. It’s a thing.
When I first started my degree I looked at my seniors and said, “I will never be like them. I will maintain my hobbies and be able to sustain non-medical related conversations.” Famous last words. Even if you are able to converse with a non-med person, the dreaded moment arrives when they proceed to ask you what you study, followed with – “Oh wow, you must be really smart! So, what’s the most –insert adjective– thing you’ve –past participle–?”
In short – medschool wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I’m learning and I love what I do. But if you are a sixteen year old naively thinking that medicine is this perfect, orderly world with clear-cut answers (oh younger me, bless her heart) and a little glamour (thank all the television shows for that) – think again.
N.B.: this is a personal article which in no way reflects the universal opinions of medical students.