“Be a duck,” became my mantra throughout medical school, so much so that my mother had it printed onto a canvas and has it hanging on a wall at home in my honor. As a medical student you might think I would be more interested in having the prowess of a lioness, the elegance of an eagle, the speed of a cheetah or the energy of a dolphin. A duck, as most envision it, does not have much appeal; except, however, when swimming. The quote that led me to emulate the duck is Michael Caine’s, “Be a duck, remain calm on the surface and paddle like the dickens underneath.”
When I started medical school, I was most excited to start learning again. Having spent the last couple years as a teacher in a classroom, I sorely missed the experience of being the student. Reflecting on my college days, I missed the intellectual conversations generated in our seminars, hours poring over literature under dimly lit alcoves of Sanborn Library, even the far-too-frequent all-nighters spent hashing through complex biochemical pathways with my study group.
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.”
Medical school is a constant, never-ending cycle between success and failure — sometimes one occurring within moments of the other. To be a medical student is to fail. We fail at the small things: working out three times a week, being on time for a friend’s birthday dinner, working on the research that has been on our desk for months. We also fail at the big things like exams, practical skills, asking for help when we most need it and sometimes letting ourselves sulk for too long.
One after the other, day after day it seems, I find myself in a room where the resident is breaking the news of terminal cancer to my patients and I feel an overwhelming sadness belied by numbness. It has only been a week and a half on internal medicine and we have already diagnosed three unsuspecting patients with cancer.
My cadaver has pink fingernails. I saw them on the first day of class, after we pulled back the white plastic sheet with the number “22” scrawled on it with permanent marker, and cut away the damp cloth that had been covering her cold skin. Her arms were folded across her chest, and on her fingers was a sparkly, ballet-pink polish, not chipped or peeling despite having been there for the 13 months since she’d died. I don’t know why it’s there. I don’t know if she painted them thinking she was going to survive to enjoy it, or if she was someone who always wanted to look her best, even in death.
These busy medical students, of which I am one, / are preparing for a road trip, / stuffing our cars full of everything we might ever conceivably need: / Metaphorical band aids, jumper cables, flashlights, emergency blankets,
As a newly-minted third-year medical student, I’m now reaching the point where I finally have to decide what I want to be “when I grow up.” (I use that term very loosely since I’m in my late 20s, have spent 23 years of my life in school, and already have one doctorate degree). Which areas of medicine should I pursue? Do I want my future practice to be clinically-oriented, research-oriented, academically-oriented or all of the above?
It’s me. You. Us, I guess. Don’t ask me to explain how time-traveling communication works. I assume it’s like the movie Interstellar (which you don’t know about because it hasn’t been released yet) or The Lake House. Anyhow, in roughly four years from now I, you, us, we will graduate from medical school and I thought it would be a good idea at this point, to write back to you just as you’re starting at Schulich Med in the fall of 2011. What I bring to you is a one-time offering of advice and insight. And no, I won’t give you stock tips: it doesn’t work that way.
On the first day of my surgery clerkship, our chief resident gave us a few instructions for our next two months together. We had to carry certain types of gauze and tape in our soon-to-be overflowing white coat pockets, create a clear and confident daily plan for each patient we followed, and be ready for rounds at 6 a.m. the next morning.
A volunteer coordinator once told me that philanthropy is about “giving a voice to the voiceless.” I want, more than anything, to be worthy of that statement. As a premedical student, I had — and still have — grand visions of uncovering the hopes and dreams of the disenfranchised and trumpeting them to the world. I have used my voice to give encouragement to struggling children, frightened women and the demented elderly. I have held hands and written to members of Congress.