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7 things I wish I could tell my medical student self, 15 years ago

Two things happened this morning , one was the NEET (the national entrance exam of medicine) results in the Newspaper, and the second ,a discussion on our college whatsapp group that today was infact 15 years to the day we attended our first lecture as Medical students.
The jubiliation of the students and parents of today as they embark on a new journey in medicine, and my own journey of the past 15 years ; the connection was like a resonance that my writing muse could not deny.
What would I tell the medical student , that was me, from 15 years back? What secrets of the trade, what insider scoop could I share which would have made my journey a little less daunting, a little more fun, and may be even more satisfying?
Here are my thoughts in no particular order, except as they enter my head.

1.       You made it! : I think the first thing I would like my younger self to do is to celebrate , and not doubt myself. I had won. I was in. the door had closed (atleast to the medical college of choice that I wished, ie  Seth GS Medical college, Mumbai) and I was safely within the campus. But instead we got bogged down by the anatomy books, and hearing words like ventral and dorsal and medial and lateral for the first time, and everything was literally Greek and Latin, and instead of thinking of myself a winner , I realised I was in a race again!
I felt I needed to adjust as quickly as I could to my new syllabus, and took the deep dive into my books and, studies. I wish I had gotten to know my surroundings, and let the bigger picture of becoming a doctor settle in before I went into the minor details of studying medicine.
A lot of the teachers wanted to talk about just that, but I wasn’t listening, not really. In my head I was thinking ,” yeah , yeah, we want to become doctors to save the world, help cure, help heal… we got that. Now can we get to the actual healing, already!”
News flash! The actual healing comes a LOT later, think three years down the line, and everything has its time and place. There is a reason that medical education is 5 and a half years long, it is not a race to the finish line, it’s a slow trot at best, you can even walk and get there.

2.       There is not a lot to study: One of the biggest, hugest detriments to choosing medicine as a field is the tremendous number of books and knowledge gathering. But the good part is that none of it is a waste.think of all the medical books and knowledge being interlinked, many of the books have overlapping knowledge, things you learnt in different years of med school. Imagine studying Roman history in seventh standard, and then Mughal dynasty and chemistry in eigtth , and then physics a year later, and mathematics for tenth and then jumping from one subject to the other ever year, every semester, and some of it goes obsolete in a few years.That is more exhausting.

In the first year itself of medical college, we had a chapter on blood clotting and it was my favourite chapter; pro thrombin and thrombin, plasminogen and plasmin, it was almost poetic in its graceful progression to fibrin. I spent hours making pretty marker underlinings on the pages, and the cool thing is that that knowledge is pretty much the crux of what the super specialist cardiologist does! Imagine something you read in first year MBBS in that one chapter is what you will be learning ten years down the line in your specialisation, and saving lives. The fibrin is even used in my field of ophthalmology as a suture less tissue glue in the eye.
Medical education is sequential, you learn one thing then learn that on top of the previous knowledge, you can always go back and brush up on something you might have neglected before, unlike other fields where they build in one knowledge and switch to something else altogether.
Nothing goes waste, spend a week understanding Malaria? Take your time. You have 5 plus years. Not sure about a bio chemical reaction from two years back?  just deal with it now. 

3.       Don’t sweat the small exams: As a medical student , every ward leaving exam became a stressor, every term exam a life and death situation. We used to snigger at the boys who whiled away their hours listening to Rafi and Rumi , the ones who spent time in useless pursuits.And today they are consultants in some of the most prestigious medical colleges in the country and abroad! What we didn’t realise is that the only big exam which would matter after getting into medical college was the one to get into post graduate medicine. No one cares how much you scored in your surgery posting ward leaving, what matters is did you get enough marks in your PGCET to get the surgery seat in post graduation.
 It is very much like, no one cares how much you got in your seventh standard, or even your eleventh standard , what matters were your NEET score. Is the system flawed? Sure, but you have to work the system. Don’t sweat it at the minor exams. Learn your things well, remember the above point about medical education building from previous knowledge? So you have to know your anatomy , to learn your surgery, but every histopathology drawing doesnot require you to spend hours drawing. Use your time to scope out your options, that leads me to my next point.

4.       Scope out your options: Before getting into medical college, our options were less, and we had our focus narrowed to the NEET, or in our case the state CET and the AIPMT. And we maintained that narrow focus all the way to our pre Post graduation, and then into Post graduation. But today the options are multiple. Just like there are innovative fields in fashion, architecture and engineering, so are they in medicine. Hospital management, pharma companies, drug research, cosmetic companies; from making shoes, to endurance sports drinks, everywhere there is a scope of medical practice, and the five and a half years is a good time to scope out your options. Apply for internships, combine your passion for marathons with sports wear and your medical field, and explore what you can do with your knowledge of the human body. We were made to believe that every single of those 5 and a half years was to be spent in pursuit of the written word, 15 years later, I hope the younger generation is smart enough to know otherwise.

5.       Have role models: Medicine has changed a lot in the last 15 years, there are so very many reasons to quit before the stipulated 6 and a half years. The doctors being beaten by patients, the inhuman working hours, the expectation that we give away the best years of our lives in rural postings , the mudslinging , the back biting , in such trying times its good to look up to someone. I had a lot of seniors I looked up to, some because they dressed well, others because they had good clinical skills, others because of their power to memorise 10 pages verbatim, others because they were plain good looking , whatever makes you want to become a doctor or atleast take you to the next stage.

6.       This is not just the journey , but also the destination: rememeber when everyone kept asking you what you want to be when you grow up , and you answered , ‘Doctor’, well now they will ask you what field you want to specialise in. But don’t get bullied into answering that wquestion, not by your parents, or their well meaning friends, and not even by yourself. Being in medical school may seem like a journey to an end, but that end is a loooong way coming my friend. In my case 11 years, but it takes longer for many, and its important to stand and appreciate what you have. Take time to get to know the patient in front of you, rather than one of the cases you need to fill in your book, not just for the patient, because honestly the patient will be treated by the registrars and the senior consultants, the history taking will benefit your morale more than the patients actually. Don’t try to answer the what do you want to be question. You remember the seven year olds when they are asked what the want to be when they grow up, and answer , I want to be an astronaut, I want to be Miss India… yup, that’s the same look we give first year medical students when they say ‘I want to be a facial reconstructive surgeon’ . “Aww , SO CUTE!”

7.       And last one , I kept the best for last: Medicine gets better with age: This is the most important of all, medical college gets easier with years. First year is the toughest , everything is greek and latin, but if you do it right, and string the next years knowledge into what you learnt in the first year, and so on and so forth, it all adds up. Even in practice, the first year of residency is the most ungrateful, but as you climb up the food chain, you get to dump on your juniors. And so forth. Once you enter the real world, the first few years of practice is soul crushing, but with a few grey hair, or even better balding pate, your patients increase.
 This is the only field in the world where wrinkles are appreciated. I have a few grey hairs and I show them off to their full glory, much like the prepubescent boys showing off their scraggly moustache, but Hey , whatever the crowd digs, right? So, yes your engineering friends will buy houses before you, they will gift their parents cars, when you are still borrowing money from your parents to pay for books in college, but at 60 , when your friends in other fields fight off the empty nest syndrome, or try and find meaning in their hobbies and morning walks, you will be getting up at 7 to do surgery, and have more than 50 patients waiting to see you.

Well, if you got this far reading, then you are made for the medical field, where lengthy paragraphs are the order of the day. And if there is anything you learnt from this blog post, it is how to write in point form , and in a manner which seems as if you know a lot about your subject, and enough to fill three full scapes in an exam. Do not forget to add labelled diagrams, medical examiners love labelled diagrams.


kunal khemnar said…
Marvellous account. I was fully entertained and felt nostalgic. Specially as I have changed my field !
Thanks Kunal. Yes, it is never too late to change course, and something always remains from your medical education. It is never wasted. How is it being an administrator?

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