Welcome to medical school! The type of school where the homework never ends, the kids in the playground are bigger and better than you, and the only notes in your wallet are detention slips. It’s hard, it’s brutal but its also some of the best and most rewarding years of your education (and life). The first year is like reliving the first day of school, over and over again except there’s no hand to hold when you walk up to the gate. It’s daunting, and scary and the workload piles up, just like all the clothes that your mother no longer washes, but you’re all in it together. Everyone gets tired, bored, discontented and overwhelmed at times.
It’s a long distance marathon. Not a sprint. It’s easy to want to race to the front of the pack, but burning out early is going to make the finish line seem a lot further away. Try to study early and consistently. Make a plan of attack and keep a checklist of subjects covered each week. Take time to rest, relax and focus your attention on other hobbies or activities. Save your energy on the flats and you will make it up the hill climbs.
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed. Just like Schrodinger’s cat - there will be times when you are simultaneously alive and dead (zombie?), and other times when you’re an existential crisis in a box. Either way, the odds of making it out alive from the box, are greater than the odds of getting into medical school, so congratulations, you made it. The next few years are going to be challenging, physically and emotionally, but definitely worth it in the long run (or so the consultants say…).
Don’t take yourself too seriously. When asked to write a guide on the “do’s and don’ts” of med school, it was disturbingly easy for me to write the “what not to do” part. But if you’re like me, and experience life through Homer Simpson logic, mistakes can be a good way to learn. The next four years are the best time to make mistakes, ask stupid questions and embarrass yourself on a daily (if not hourly) basis. Tip: Master the therapeutic art of laughing at yourself. At least then, they are laughing with you, not at you.
Get a life. Maintaining a social life, family life and online gaming life can be one of the hardest tasks in medical school. Medical school is a slow and steady process of social dissolution. Leech like and insidious in its consummation, your normal life, hobbies and interests will be devoured. The only way to fight back is keep a good circle of friends who will regularly drag your corpse from the library to the nearest bar, kitchen or beach and perform necessary resuscitation. No matter how much you study, you will never cover all the content, and never feel ready for the exam. All you can do is try your best.
If you think you need to take a break, take it. If you thought surviving puberty was tough, early to mid adulthood has just as much, if not more challenges. Unfortunately life doesn’t pause until you finish med school. Births, deaths, marriages, and illness all plague each and every one of us, and sometimes taking a ‘time out’ is the most productive and valuable part of a sustainable, and enjoyable career.
Value yourself. I remember being yelled at by a clinician for responding with “Oh I’m just a medical student” when asked to identify myself. “You’re not just a medical student!!!” he declared, before going on a long spiel about the importance of not undervaluing yourself, regardless of your uncanny resemblance to a piece of pond scum. Even pond scum eventually evolves into something magnificent.
Be a functional part of the team. As far as the patient is concerned, each member of the treating team are not individuals but limbs of the same functioning unit, regardless of whether you’re the operating surgeon or the cleaner mopping bodily fluids off the floor. Patients remember everything. Just as the best day of your life tends to be memorable, so does the worst. You may not be holding the scalpel, but holding a hand can be just as important, especially to the most important person in the room - the patient. Their whole hospital experience can be coloured by even just one interpersonal encounter, be it a positive or a negative one. Do you want to be Gollum in the corner holding his preciousss (stethoscope) or the one who they ask to stay with them when they are upset? You didn’t study all these years and maintain perfect grades just to wind up as a glorified tissue box. It is an absolute privilege to be a part of these moments. Embrace and appreciate them.
See one, do one, teach one. Regarding clinical skills (eg. Venipuncture), in my experience there are many variations of the same skill, depending on who is teaching you, and how well stocked the nurses station is. Watch as many procedures as you possibly can. Get involved early, build your confidence and practice. During undergrad the only skill I perfected was turning the pages of textbooks, and how to cook mi-goreng without a stove, kettle or microwave. During med school there are many skills to learn and yes, practice makes perfect but it also makes you comfortable and confident.
“Finish last in your league and they call you idiot. Finish last in medical school and they call you doctor.”
– Abe Lemons
Textbook Must Have’s for First & Second Year: beg, borrow or steal
- Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine
- Davidson’s Principles and Practice of Medicine
- Clinical Examination – Talley & O’Connor
- First Aid for USMLE Step 1 and/or Toronto Notes
- Gray’s Anatomy for Students (or Atlas of Human Anatomy – Frank Netter)
- Rohen’s Colour Atlas of Anatomy
- Robbins & Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease
- Guyton and Hall’s Textbook of Medical Physiology
- Harrison’s Internal Medicine (good for later years, and detail in first years)
Books to read:
- The House of God – Samuel Shem
- Kill as Few Patients as Possible – Oscar London
- The Checklist Manifesto – Atul Gawande
- When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi
- Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures – Vincent Lam
- Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science – Atul Gawande
- Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance – Atul Gawande
Online websites to use:
- eTG – Australian Therapeutic Guidelines
- Best Practice
- Geeky Medics