What a journey!

Almost four years ago, we embarked on an adventure that we now know as medical school. Each of us, I’m sure, had thoughts and ideas of what the road to becoming a physician might be like. I was often wrong and frequently surprised!

The first two years of medical school were academically challenging as we began to understand the complexities of the human body. In stark contrast to this rigorous experience, we enjoyed numerous parties, consumed delicious Portland food and drink, and explored beautiful Oregon.

It has been a pleasure to watch my classmates succeed in their respective interests, present research they toiled over, become leaders, find loving partners, have children, overcome hardships, celebrate their successes, and, most of all, learn to be humanistic physicians. 

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A little bit luckier

For two harrowing weeks, I experienced the health care system from the other side. My grandmother, visiting from India, had a fall that turned into an emergency room visit that turned into an electrolyte imbalance that turned into an idiopathic neurological problem that turned into a coma that turned into her unexpected death. Less than two weeks after what seemed like a routine fall, she died.

The ten days my grandmother spent in the hospital confused all of us. One night, she got two CT scans and an MRI (she was under-insured and no one gave us a straight answer about billing). She saw a doctor roughly every twelve hours, and we relied mostly on her nurses for information about her health and schedule. We got excited about an occupational therapist who never showed up. A young, probably exhausted resident ordered an extensive procedure without explaining it, her attending canceled it, the specialist ordered it again, and finally, it was not performed. We had to remind her health care teams to change her, move her, give her medications, and even take the necessary labs. My father and I ensured that one of us was always in the room, but we were both moved almost to tears on several occasions by the difficult of receiving not only care but also basic information about her status.

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I have been thinking for awhile about what to write for my first blog. As I was thinking about what to write a word came to mind: diversity. I started to think about how I might be diverse from others here at OHSU and what that brings to our collective educational experience.

Clearly I’ve circled the sun a few more times than my class colleagues (more than a few professors as well). I’ve had some experiences working and visiting overseas but so have some of my colleagues. I am changing careers but so are some of my colleagues. I’ve earned a masters degree in a math intensive field but so have some of my colleagues.

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Match point

And now we wait.

After spending roughly 2,000 hours in a classroom, 4,000 hours in clinics and hospitals and thousands more studying or taking tests, my classmates and I are ready to graduate from medical school. We are moving on to residency, the yearslong apprenticeship that teaches newly minted MDs to apply many of the concepts we’ve struggled for years to learn, to forget others and to subvert a few. We’re ready to take charge of our own patients in a real hospital.

We just have no idea which hospital, in which state. That we learn on March 21. On that day, at the same hour (9 a.m. Pacific), every graduating medical student learns where he or she will live and work for the next three to seven years.

The process is called The Match. It’s mildly nerve-wracking.

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Well worth it

It’s a first class problem to have so many interesting/inspiring topics to talk about that you are unsure of which one to write about in your blog…but that’s where I’m at lately. I’m just about done with my third term of five in this program and I’m chaotically busy but loving every minute. Do I choose to write about the issue I researched that is so near and dear to my heart? Do I write about how I’m beginning to think like a nurse and finally feel like I will be ready to be a new graduate nurse in a few months? Do I write about the very impressive nurses and faculty I’ve had the opportunity to work with and how they have inspired me to potentially teach students later in my career? You can understand my dilemma.

What I narrowed it down to is really the thing I’m loving most, and that is my rotation in pediatrics. I came to nursing school knowing it is what I wanted to do. But getting to do it- well it’s brought me more joy than I thought possible, already.

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Bending, breaking, and building

Not too long ago, I was faced with a choice; do I take undergraduate organic chemistry with the “easy” professor or the professor with a reputation for being incredibly difficult and robbing you of all free time?

I chose the latter. My peers with the easier professor excelled with lesser efforts, while I toiled away at Grignard reaction mechanisms in the recesses of the library. Though I did well, the course was so difficult, it redefined what I thought I could handle.

Recently, we completed one of the most difficult courses in medical school – biochemistry. Coming from an engineering background, the level of detail and intricacy of biochemistry was daunting; the mastery biochemistry demanded set a new precedent. 

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Has your patient lost his or her head?

At home over the holidays I watched more news in a few days with my Dad than I do all year long. As I was finishing my morning oatmeal (Bob’s Red Mill, my longtime favorite) and Dad channel surfed, I asked, to no one in particular, “Have you noticed how many people have lost their head these days?”

I am not talking about the newscasters ranting over political debates – I’m talking about the ones where the pictures are focused solely on a person’s torso. Millions of headless photos highlight the national obesity epidemic every day in the media. As a student and a soon to be Registered Dietitian, I immediately choked down a swelling fear – “I am going to be a Registered Dietitian in a few months, this is my issue!  I need to do something. What am I going to do to help these folks?”

We live in a challenging food environment that makes it difficult to make the healthy choice. Food marketing and advertisement is ubiquitous, literally at every turn of our day, encouraging you to eat everything, literally. We have normalized so many products as “food,” I find myself in a constant struggle to actually classify these items as food. When and how did picking up “food” in a white sack from a window within 45 seconds of ordering it become normal much less considered food?

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First off, I want to apologize to the two people who actually remembered I had written here (hi Mom and Dad!) for not writing anything new in, well, almost a year. Things have been uniquely chaotic for me over the past year. I’m reminded of the apocryphal story about a sultan who asked once King Solomon if there was anything that would be universally true in any situation, regardless of whether it was good or bad. Solomon replied, “This too shall pass.”

Indeed they will. It’s not just an OK Go song, although everything does sound better when sung within a Rube Goldberg machine.

Instead of posting a quippy 300-word article about my graduate school experience (sorry Mom and Dad), I thought I would write a 200-word poem about that experience. I’m not saying the poem is good; I’m saying that what follows are more than 200 words grouped into stanzas. Writing poetry is much harder than writing prose, which is why I generally avoid it, but blizzards help make people wistful and unconventionally inspired. (That’s why Percy Bysshe Shelley was such a huge fan of Dairy Queen.) 

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Hold on just a minute

In the breast pocket of my white coat, I carry the beat-up business card that a patient gave me. Every month or two, when I bend over, the card falls out and I remember one of the most remarkable conversations of medical school:

Me: “What do you do for a living?”
Him: “I’m a ninja.”

He was not joking. I was not in the psych ward. It turned out Mr. P was a martial arts expert and professional fighter. I’m not sure if he was an actual ninja – he wasn’t wearing black pajamas or a gold butterfly medallion – but the exchange helped me understand why he may have come into the hospital with a sudden loss of consciousness. More important, it helped me understand why my patient seemed surprisingly unconcerned about his potential head injury and eager to return to his dojo and Shaolin wine. We spent a few minutes talking about his work, his training regimen, and how a ninja likes laid-back Portland life. I don’t know if the conversation helped him feel more comfortable or better understood, though I hope it did. I do know that it made my day wonderful.

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Reflections of Graduate Experiences

When I sat down at my computer to write this, my first blog post since last March, I was not exactly sure what to write. Over the past ten months I have attended the Drosophila Neurobiology Cold Spring Harbor course (which changed my science life), written a qualifying exam, done edits to my qualifying exam, achieved candidacy, presented a poster at the Drosophila Neurobiology Cold Spring Harbor conference, had margaritas with my great science grandfather, and even managed to go to Disneyland when it was all over. Last year was a roller coaster with very high peaks and very low valleys and I think I am not yet convinced that the ride is over; at any moment I expect another spiral, turning my graduate experience on its head. Looking back on the last ten months and conversations I have had with various people about what it means to be a graduate student, what we are supposed to do, and what we actually have to do,  it strikes me how little most people know about today’s graduate student experience.

Graduate school is a purely unique experience in education. We are here to be trained as scientists. We are given a general outline of when to take what classes, a general window during which we are supposed to take an exam, and we must balance our classroom studies with what we are actually supposed to be doing, i.e. research. Some faculty understand this, some do not. The graduate school experience is formed by individual student-faculty, student-postdoc, student-technician, student-student, and faculty-faculty interactions. There is no guide on how to deal with criticism, communication breakdowns, personality conflicts, privacy violations, and multiple, sometimes divergent opinions.  Neither are there guides on how to deal with general depression or unrest in the work environment – students sense faculty unrest and when faculty are unhappy, students are generally unhappy too. There are therefore many intangibles in our daily lives that we, the student, do not and cannot control.

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Ever wondered what life is like as a student at OHSU? What does it take to become a researcher? Just how gross is gross anatomy? Welcome to the blog that answers these – and many other – questions. It’s students writing first-hand about their commitment to careers in science and health care. It’s honest about the challenges as well as the joys. It’s not always pretty. But it is our story. Thank you for sharing it with us. And please, let us know what you think.

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