My first year of medical school is now behind me forever. I am sitting on an airplane, which, after a 3-hour delay, appears to be getting ready to take off. This plane is heading to Houston, where I will meet five of my friends and classmates, and together we will board a plane to the island of Roatan, Honduras. For the next month I will be in a clinic and on beaches, helping patients and helping myself. But this post is not about Honduras; it’s about why I need to go to Honduras. It’s about my first year of medical school, which I must say I absolutely loved. Seriously. In the past year, I’ve made some of my greatest friends and have had countless new experiences that I will never forget. Even so, it has certainly had its challenges. For me, the most difficult part of medical school so far has been the unyielding speed. The never-stop pace. The everyday grind that, like a freight train, simply does not slow down for anyone.
Family members and friends have often asked me throughout the year, as a first year medical student, what is a typical day like? I think that understanding what a single day looks like can give a good idea of what the overall pace of med school feels like. So for my last post of the academic year, I want to tell you:
When I wake up, I’m usually tired. Today is no different. The alarm goes off on my cell phone at 6:45AM and I press snooze. This affords me nine more minutes of sleep, during which time I somehow fall completely back into a dream state. I generally repeat this process at least twice before getting out of bed. It takes me exactly thirty minutes from the moment my feet hit the ground to the point when I’m ready for the day and walking out the door; I’ve timed it on numerous occasions. My eyes are always on the clock these days, as there is rarely time to waste.
After grabbing cereal and a homemade espresso, I run out the door. I make it to lecture with exactly 10 seconds to spare (I live a three-minute walk from school). I file in through the lecture seats with the rest of my class, ready for the day’s four hours of planned lectures or labs. About one out of every four days, I spill my coffee. Carrying water and a bag and coffee and a sweatshirt and sometimes even toast is harder than it looks. Today’s lectures are on viruses that cause a predisposition to certain forms of cancer, and then forensic analysis. Afterwards we head downstairs to the microscopy lab, where we look at prepared slides of benign and malignant tumors and learn to differentiate the two.
At noon, the scientific medical school curriculum at OHSU comes to an end — sort of. A lot of people hear that we only have class 8AM-12PM and think, “wow, you have a lot of free time.” This is somewhat true, but mostly not at all. Today, for example, my non-academic activities begin with a suturing workshop from 12PM-1PM. This is part of an optional elective and is taught by student group leaders as well as Dr. Wilson from the Trauma Surgery Department. After learning the mattress stitch, it’s time to head to the library.
I generally spend between two and eight hours studying, depending on the day. As far as location is concerned, I rotate among my room, the library, and a handful of coffee shops. My room is best to completely avoid distractions. The library is great for socializing. And coffee shops help me feel like a real person. Today, I choose the library, and amidst some chit-chat, a PB and J, and a soda run, I learn a few lectures worth of material. I’m scheduled for an emergency room shift, so I only spend until 5PMin the library.
At 6PM, after grabbing a quick dinner, I meet my preceptor in the Pediatric Emergency Room for a four-hour shift. He has me seeing patients on my own and then presenting to him, something I couldn’t dream of doing successfully at the beginning of the year. After observing a lumbar puncture and looking into a lot of ears, the four hours goes quickly and it is 10 o’clock. Time to go home.
I get back home and hit the kitchen. A quesadilla is in order. Working in the hospital makes me feel like a real medical provider and not just a student. I feel clinically refreshed, but as I cook, that exhaustion I first felt so many hours ago when my alarm went off hits me hard. All of a sudden I can barely stand. I need a couch, a bed, a massage.
I can’t possibly do this again tomorrow. But I will. The day won’t be the same, but it will be similarly busy, and so will the one after that. I turn on Sportscenter and eat my late-night meal. I take a look at tomorrow’s lectures, just to have some idea of what’s coming. I get ready for bed and ruminate about how behind I am in class, a condition that feels perpetual and inevitable. Some nights are more stressful than others, but usually around this time I feel lucky. I feel lucky that I’m spending my days training in a field that I chose, and that my hard work will one day make people’s lives better. I feel lucky to be in Portland and at OHSU, where I feel I truly belong. I also feel lucky because the year is nearly done, and soon I’ll be on the beaches of Honduras, putting my new skills to use, and also taking some much needed time for myself.