I packed up my new backpack, laptop, notebooks and pens early in the morning. The anxiety was palpable as my housemates and I dressed up to make our best impressions on our first day of medical school. This was unfamiliar territory. I had become so accustomed to my hectic routine as a college student by day and a nurse in the emergency department (ED) by night, but what would life be like as a “professional” student?
Walking into the auditorium, I was greeted by friends I’d met during orientation. Like a game of telephone, we passed words of reassurance down our row, and I felt fortunate to be part of such a supportive community.
However, like most medical students, the transition wasn’t easy for me. I went from working 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shifts three times per week to watching lectures and studying nearly all the time. Studying efficiently came with its own learning curve, as well. I found that I learned best by listening to lectures online, as I could pause the recording when I was losing focus. Resource overload was very real, but I kept it simple and got the hang of things after a few difficult weeks of trial and error.
Still, the changes were hitting me hard and extended beyond just my study habits. Many ideas about how to best manage these adjustments ran through my mind each day.
Questions. In the past when I had questions at work, I turned to my most trusted coworkers. They had years of experience to back up their knowledge and showed me the ropes during high stress situations. Now I had to navigate medical school alone, referencing large textbooks, long lectures and endless videos to explain concepts. I missed the steady guidance of a mentor.
Self-doubt. I left a successful career as an ED nurse to move to Philadelphia for medical school. Would I have what it takes? Did I make the right choice? Soon, I realized almost everyone in my cohort had similar feelings and doubts. “Impostor syndrome” seemed to be a communal experience.
Support. Every day in the ED, my coworkers stood by my side and guided me. During the most difficult cases and craziest days, I never felt alone. I felt lucky to be navigating this transition with my boyfriend and amazing new friends, but I still longed for the familiarity of my former support system.
Lifestyle. I used to have so much time to explore new places and have fun. Now, I found myself living in an exciting new city with barely enough time to stroll down Main Street. I hoped to make time to finally explore my new home, but there didn’t seem to be enough hours in the day.
Stress. In the ED my stress was well-managed. I loved the fast pace of the job and appreciated the critical-thinking and decision-making skills it required. Medical school brought a totally different type of stress: I felt I needed to prove that I belonged. I needed better ways to blow off steam.
Despite all of these challenges, this new life brought some new comforts as well.
Routine. Like most night-shift workers, I had never before had a consistent routine. After beginning medical school I felt pressure to wake up at a reasonable time, resist procrastination, and stick to a consistent regimen for studying like my classmates. Despite this pressure, I initially found myself sleeping until noon, hanging out with my dog, and saving the studying until later. I’d soon realize that that was okay.
Familiarity. In this world of novelty there was some familiarity, too. Every day in lectures we learned about diseases that I’ve seen, patients that I’ve helped and medications that I’ve administered (who would have thought I’d be excited to read about digoxin?). In lectures, I’m regularly grateful for how much I learned in my years as a nurse.
Everyone’s transition into medical school is unique, but this is especially true for us “non-traditionals.” Former teachers miss their students, former technicians miss their patients and parents miss their children. Each individual defines “success” differently, and my successes began to take shape as time went on. Passing my first exam lifted a weight off my shoulders and reassured me that I did belong. I found time to explore Philadelphia and found that, as I became more familiar with my new city, my stress began to decrease. I fell into my own comfortable personal routine, although it was different from those of my friends. My classmates provided the balance I needed during this time, as I could see how each of us adapted in our own ways: it was okay for me to sleep in, I wasn’t the only one watching lectures online and I wasn’t alone in experiencing self-doubt. I could soon see that I was adjusting well at my own pace. Over time, the challenges I encountered became smaller and the comforts became more numerous.
Image credit: Custom drawing by Megan Pattoli for this column.
After working in the Emergency Room as a registered nurse for three years, Coco made the transition into medical school at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. The column Switching Stethoscopes describes a medical student’s journey from nurse to doctor, while reflecting on the “non-traditional” path some students take to become a physician.