I breathed in and out, in and out, in and out, trying to slow my heart rate. Countless hours of preparation had led to this day: the day when I would get the honor of donning the white coat that characterized the profession I was about to enter.
Earlier this month, I watched my younger sister begin her medical school journey as she walked on stage in front of family members and peers to be officially “white-coated.” I had never been to another white coat ceremony since my own years ago. It was fascinating to observe it from my now-more-seasoned fourth-year medical student eyes — especially at another institution.
new introduction / my name is… / and i’m a med student
First year of medical school: / Don’t remember much. / MD/PhD students, you know what I mean. / Learned how to use a stethoscope.
The morning that we met was one most medical students eagerly anticipate as they embark on the journey that is medical education. Excitedly I put on my first set of scrubs, elated to look like a “real” doctor. Beneath my external façade however, I was masking an underlying feeling of anxiety.
One such opportunity was presented to me the same week of my acceptance phone call earlier this spring: a fully-funded trip to a previously unattended region of Nicaragua with a volunteer medical brigade. It was led by physicians from my institution looking to recruit our entering first-year medical school class to help lead the trip.
After passing out, I began to have doubts about my true level of squeamishness. So when it came time to go into the anatomy lab for the first time as a first-year medical student, I was nervous that I would be “that person” — the person who passes out the first time she walks into lab.
During my first year of medical school, I had the privilege of speaking at several high schools and colleges. The purpose of these interactions was to shed light on what I did to matriculate into medical school, my experiences as a medical student, and to answer any questions. No matter where I went though, one question always followed: “What is the hardest part of medical school?”
About eight months into my first year of medical school, an incoming student asked me how to prepare for the upcoming journey. I could relate to the panicked, excited feeling of the duty to prepare for medical school after an intense visit day. Yet, instead of defaulting to my ingrained answer of, “Nothing can prepare you for medical school,” which I believe was not in the student’s interest to hear, I carefully considered her question and answered, “It’s very important to be a good listener.”
I was constantly sick as a child with ear infections, meaning I was in the doctor’s office all of the time. However, about the time I turned 3 years old, I got Bell’s palsy. My mom is a nurse and did not often overreact to medical issues, but she was obviously terrified of my drooping face and rushed me into the doctor’s office. Given my previous history of visits for my ear infections, the doctor was somewhat impatient. Assuming I was there for another ear infection, he walked into the room while looking at my chart, never looking up. As he was prattling on about how we were in the office far too often my mom looked at him and yelled, “Just look at her!” The moment he did, his jaw dropped and he rushed into action.
Cadaver. The word itself seems devoid of life. And, so too does the white plastic bag lying unceremoniously before me. It’s the first day of anatomy, and I unzip the tarp and stare down at a wet, grey lump of clay. There it is. There is what, exactly? What was I expecting? Some warm human soul, freshly sprung from the loins of life? No. That’s not this. The essence of life is gone — absolutely, irrevocably, unquestionably, gone.
I had just finished my second test in medical school. I flopped down next to a fellow student I met barely a month ago, exasperated and on the verge of tears. I was exhausted and quickly becoming emotional, realizing I was too uncertain about a (large) handful of those musculoskeletal questions.