I started medical school over two weeks ago now. Yet it was during my first week that I couldn’t help but think of how similar this all feels to my first few weeks in Thailand.
Walking to class on the first day I was reminded of my first week in Thailand when I realized the stark turn my life had taken. I was standing at the front gate of the school, greeting children as they hopped from crowded motorbikes, emptied by the dozens from giant green busses secured by military men, and slipped from their parents’ air conditioned cars. Each of them bowed deeply in front of the Thai teachers. As many of them reached me in the line they would smile and wave hello. “Good morning Teacha!” Others would hesitate, not knowing the proper way to greet me, then bow and run off quickly. Yet others would skip acknowledging me entirely, chasing friends into the playground, their backpacks bouncing off the back of their knees and their too-big shoes sliding off their heels.
It was my first Thursday teaching in Nan, my first Thursday wearing the orange shirt that I would continue to wear every Thursday for the next two years. It was that Thursday, as I stood there watching school aged children, some of them bowing so deeply that their foreheads nearly touched their knees, that I first realized how drastically my life had changed in a matter of a few days. I had gone from walking to and from class on a pristine campus, my backpack weighed down by books, teachers talking at me; to being the teacher myself in a country I didn’t yet understand. It felt daunting and yet I had a strange sense of calm.
Although I haven’t had quite the same definitive moment of realization that I had then, I know my life has changed drastically. I have known that my life would change drastically for months now, probably even since the time I hit submit on the medical school application over a year ago now. But perhaps it is this exact anticipation that makes me feel so at peace now. Despite the chaos of learning the speeding highways of our bodies’ arteries, veins, nerves, and muscles in under 3 weeks, I feel that this is exactly where I need to be.
And yet the similarities between these two experiences have made me nostalgic for my students. My heart has ached for them. My thoughts have turned to them during quiet moments in the morning and evening. Before the first day of class I slipped two bracelets onto my wrist given to me by Namo and Gift. Namo’s a pastel colored string of beads that resemble a candy necklace. Gift’s a string of clear, shiny, perfectly round beads.
Myself and all of my classmates received the same stethoscope during our White Coat Ceremony the Friday before starting classes. When we had to bring the stethoscopes to class on the second day I looked in my room for some sort of identifying feature I could add to my stethoscope, something to differentiate it from everyone else’s. I went to the jar on my bookshelf, filled with dozens of Rainbow Loom bracelets, small colored rubber bands looped together with the aid of pencils. My students had made each one of these for me. For a few weeks during my first year they would run to me at the beginning or end of class and slip them onto my wrist or push them into my palm. “For you teacha!” My arm soon became decorated with them, stacking half way up my forearm somedays. I choose a small, ring sized one now and placed it near the end of my stethoscope. It felt right to have them there, at the tip of the first medical instrument I have received.
After the first week of teaching in Nan I wrote a blog post entitled Unit One Review where I listed all the things I had learned that week. I had learned that my first graders thought I spoke Thai. I learned that the one year age gap between my first and second and second and third grade students made my classroom environments feel radically different. I learned first and foremost that teaching was hard.
It’s interesting how much this experience now – medical school – mirrors my experience then. In this first week I have learned a lot – in content, but also basic lessons that will help me approach the rest of my four years here. With the nostalgia I’ve experienced this week and the similarities I’ve felt between the two experiences, I only find it fitting to introduce another Unit One Review.
Lesson 1: Perhaps what is more overwhelming than the actual material I must learn is the amount of resources I have to learn that material. On the first day we were instructed to download a computer program called the Visual Human Dissector and then given a lecture about how this tool would help us learn anatomy. But then classmates told me about Essential Anatomy and Complete Anatomy, two apps that they claim are much better than the Visual Human Dissector. There is the choice of anatomy atlases – Grant’s or Netter’s – both of which have the same information but present it in different ways. There are the files constantly being downloaded onto our Facebook page.
Hey Guys, I found this quiz tool helpful. Thought I would share.
Hey Everyone, here are some electronic copies of the required texts that an upper classmen gave me.
Hey, here is a link to a Wiki page for our school with lots of helpful information!
The electronic set up of the schedule and assignments, lecture materials and learning objectives, self quizzes and learning modules is confusing. I haven’t quite figured out a simple way to keep track of everything that’s due and when. Or even what I’m expected to do before any given lecture.
“Did you watch that video?” one classmate asks at lunch.
“No, were we supposed to watch a video?” No one told me we were supposed to watch a video.
And I’ve learned that our lecturers (they don’t call them professors for some reason or another) expect us to know certain things – like where we’re supposed to go next.
“So you all know your small groups, please split up into those,” the lecturer says at the front of the hall.
I don’t know my small group. I look to the person next to me. “Do you know where you’re going?”
“Yeah, it says all the small groups in this document here,” they show me their computer. It’s an entire excel sheet, each of our names placed carefully in boxes with headings over them of the room number we are supposed to file into, like show animals going into pens.
“Where did you find this?”
She tells me. I can’t even process what she is saying.
I haven’t even really figured out how to see when our tests are. I know we have a test in 3 weeks (now 2 and half) but I only know this because someone else told me. I haven’t written down the date, although I vaguely know it is sometime in September, perhaps after Labor Day weekend. I could write down the date. I’ve thought about it. But to go out and find that information, somewhere buried in the mass amount of electronic sources we have at our fingertips feels too time consuming to someone who can barely navigate what small group I’m in. There are bones and muscle attachments to learn.
Lesson 2: Don’t compare yourself to others.
They told us this at orientation. I believed them, but I didn’t know then how essential it would be.
I check out a skeleton in the library. From the corner of my eye I can see classmates in a study room, writing up a diagram on the white board. I haven’t done that, I think. I don’t even know what that diagram is. Panic begins to settle in. Do I need to know that right now? Am I not doing something that I should? What am I doing wrong? But within seconds I shake it. Don’t compare yourself to others, I remind myself. Maybe they’ve taken anatomy before. Maybe they already know the bones.
One morning I hear my roommate leave the house to get an early start on studying. It is before 7 am. I am still in the basement, at my desk writing. I haven’t dressed or even eaten breakfast. I feel the press (metaphorically of course) of the bones on my back. I must go. She’s studying. So why am I sitting here and doing something so menial as writing? There are bones to learn. Notes to take. Diagrams, that I haven’t even seen before, to draw.
I breathe in, then out. This is where I am supposed to be, I say, sitting here writing, under the bright glare of my desk lamp and a lukewarm cup of coffee near my wrist.
Lesson 3: Take it one hour at a time.
Unlike many other aspects of my life, med school becomes an hour by hour entity. What lecture do we have tomorrow? Someone might ask. I can’t answer them. I only know where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be learning in the next hour. Tomorrow feels too far away to worry about it.
If I thought anyway else I would begin to explode with the amount of material I must learn.
“We have three weeks until the test,” someone mentioned to me on the second day.
“Three weeks?!” I say. The way he said it made it sound as if 3 weeks was a generally long time frame to learn what we needed to know. I try not to think that I only have 2 weeks left to learn all this material before I’m tested on it. Even seeing that number here, I flip through my calendar, panicked. No, 2 weeks can’t possibly be right, I think. It has to be more than that. Right? It’s not. Two more weeks of class and then I’ll be tested. I’ll have to know the over 40 pages of information, listed in bullet point form, on my study guide. If I thought about that, though, each time I sat down to study I would never get anything done, too paralyzed with fear and improbability to pull out an Anatomy atlas and locate the carpal bones. That’s why I must just take it all one hour at a time. One structure at a time. One lecture at a time.
“I’ve never learned this much by the second day of school,” a classmate says to me as we walk to class that morning. We have just spent the last couple of hours in the bone room, going over the pelvic bone – which I will now know as the innominate. Small notches and curves in the bone haunt me as I go to sleep. Is that the conoid tubercle or the coracoid process or perhaps the coronoid fossa? It all blends together at first and yet writing this now I am able to distinguish the three. The conoid tubercle is on the inferior surface of your clavicle; the coracoid process jutting out from your glenoid cavity on your scapula; the coronoid fossa a divet on your anterior humerus where the ulna bone sits. It’s insane to me that I have learned that much in three days time. It’s perhaps more insane to realize I will continue to learn this much and more each day for the next four years, perhaps even for the rest of my career (although I really hope it does slow down at some point).
Lesson 4: Tell yourself that everything is fine, even if you don’t always believe that.
I’m reminded of a cartoon that a friend who was teaching with me in Thailand first introduced to me. It had a person drawn in a room, sitting at a table, a fire sprouting around them, engulfing the rest of the room. “This?” they ask to the reader. “This is fine.” I loved it then because it reminded me of my classroom. Pure chaos would arise around me, children yelling, going every which direction, and I would stand at the front of the class, a flashcard for the letter E in my hand, trying to sing our alphabet song above the din, usually without success.
Now, I feel this way again. Talking on the phone with my mom the other night as I drove home, she inquired how I was doing.
“I’m fine,” I said.
She did that mom thing where they read into the intonation of your voice and assume something more is going on.
“How are you really doing?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” I insisted. “It’s a lot but I’m fine.”
“You don’t like it do you?”
“No. I like it. I’m fine.”
I relayed this story to a classmate sitting next to me in lecture the next day. We laughed over it.
“I have to tell everyone I’m fine, too,” he said. He told me that friends ask how med school was going and his only answer is fine. “I don’t want to say anything else.”
* * * *
Since the first week all of these lessons have continued to hold true. The firehose of information has only become stronger and after the weekend I will have to prove that I’ve been able to sufficiently drink from that pounding stream of water when we take our first test. When I had my first minor break down last week I turned to my roommate.
“Breathe,” she told me.
“Breathe?” I asked. “There’s so much to know. I don’t want to do it.”
“What would you be doing if you weren’t in medical school?” she asked. It was a rhetorical question but I stopped to think anyway.
“I definitely wouldn’t be this happy right now.” It’s hard – no doubt. Yet, this is exactly what I wanted. I breathed in, like my roommate had instructed, and felt a sudden pang of gratefulness to have 40 pages of muscles and bones to learn.