Doctor's Orders
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Thomas Whalen, MD, MMM: A Reflection on the Journey

Article by Thomas Whalen, MD, MMM | “Doctor’s Orders” curated by editor Sasha Yakhkind

Keep in mind first and foremost that I graduated from medical school in 1976. Therefore, all recollections of those positive instances have been greatly embellished over the decades and the obvious corollary is that all memories of negative incidents have been far more exaggerated.

Nonetheless, I do well remember absolutely hating the first year of medical school. All of us who are so blessed as to be able to gain entrance to medical school are reasonably well endowed in intellect.Therefore, we all have probably encountered at some point along our educational pathway a certain brick wall when it was no longer easy and you had to work extremely hard. I was fortunate enough to cruise through college, but n my first year at Boston University School of Medicine I had to study hours upon hours. I sincerely hope that that material is presented in a far more exciting light than it was back then, because for me it was nothing but drudgery. I am now 61 and I can honestly say that there is only one year in my life that were I to need to repeat it I would decline the opportunity – that was my first year of medical school. At times, in retrospect, I suspect that I was clinically depressed. Fortunately, I got through it one way or another. I do not remember any particular social network that helped me, but I emerged and entered the second year of medical school with a far more positive experience. While that was still overwhelmingly didactic, it seemed so much more purposeful in learning about disease, rather than just the basic sciences of the first year. Throughout those first two years, I worked in a hospital clinical laboratory from 5 to 11 every Friday night and 8 to 5 each Saturday. The good news back then was that financial aid packages were not so generous as to provide much beyond tuition, therefore the level of indebtedness was far less. Thus my extracurricular activities and my social life was essentially nonexistent. Every other waking hour was spent studying.

When it came to Board examinations, the well-known rule of two applied to the three parts for the exam: study two weeks for Step 1, two days for Step 2 and bring a number two pencil to Step 3. (Computerized testing was certainly not available since computers were basically not available; I took a course in a programming language in college that required punch cards).

As much as I hated the first year, I loved the third year. I was perhaps unusual in that I had known that I wanted to be a surgeon since high school. I enjoyed my rotations in pediatrics, medicine and obstetrics. I do remember, with apologies to my colleagues in the field, being oh so greatly disenchanted with my gynecology rotation. I did that rotation before surgery and I thought, “Lord if this is what surgery is, then I definitely do not want to do it for the rest of my life!

I intentionally selected my surgery rotation as the last of my third year because I wanted to be as well-honed clinically as I could be before I took it. The surgery rotation lasted 12 weeks, four at a community hospital, four at the main University Hospital, and four weeks on surgical subspecialties and anesthesia. I was on call every other night in the hospital and was ecstatic no matter how tired I may have been. What I remembered most was that it absolutely confirmed my career choice as a future surgeon.

It is ironic for me to be reflecting upon my own Match Day. I have had the pleasure of serving on the Board of Directors of the National Resident Matching Program and was President of that group the last two years. While the interview trail was interesting for me, I again was fairly focused in where I went, picking just two institutions outside of New England. I was fortunate to match at Boston University Medical Center. I suspect it is the same today as it was back then, in that students will rehearse in preparation for what standard questions they might gain. One question I knew I would be asked was “Why general surgery?” (I had not yet germinated the idea of specializing in pediatric surgery). I remember at Brown University being asked that question by the Chairman. I gave my rehearsed answer that in my experience in medical school, it seemed the general surgeon was now becoming a specialist in abdominal surgery and I thoroughly loved the conditions and procedures that I had witnessed in that regard. His temper exploded, yelling at me that the general surgeon was a surgeon in all areas of the body and if I thought I should be specialized in abdominal surgery I should get the hell out of his program. I thought it prudent to end my interview day early and not list that program on my match list!

Sasha Yakhkind Sasha Yakhkind (16 Posts)

Editor Emeritus: Former Medical Student Editor (2013-2015)

Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida

Sasha is thrilled for the opportunity to combine her interests in writing and medicine. She has been writing since she got her first journal in second grade, and editing since she ran her high school newspaper. Her interest in medicine evolved through travel, studying the brain through the lens of social science as undergraduate at Boston University, and together with her interest in yoga and dance. Sasha gets inspired on long runs and looks forward to few things more than hiking with her mom.