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Learning How to Survive

Posted Sep 04 2009 12:00am
Triage (from Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
1: a. the sorting of and allocation of treatment to patients and especially battle and disaster victims according to a system of priorities designed to maximize the number of survivors
b. the sorting of patients (as in an emergency room) according to the urgency of their need for care
2: the assigning of priority order to projects on the basis of where funds and other resources can be best used, are most needed, or are most likely to achieve success

Triage, it's what doctors and nurses do in emergency rooms and in disaster situations. You assess your patients and determine who needs immediate care and who can wait. And it seems it's a tool I've picked up early on in medical school.

I'm juggling six classes, 35 hours of lecture/lab a week, somewhere between 1-4 exams each week, and pop quizzes. And that's only school time. The remaining few hours of the day are devoted to "self-directed learning", the time when you force yourself to stay awake to study for all of these classes.

You go into medical school knowing it's going to be hard. But you can't really understand just how hard it's going to be once you're in the middle of it. It's all-consuming and constant. The idea of weekends and spare time fall to the wayside and are replaced with "finally there's some time to study!" Any free time is a chance to catch up on the hundreds of pages of reading. You learn to function on fewer hours of sleep so that you can memorize volumes of anatomy and biochemistry and physiology.

They tell you it's normal. The deans, the advisors, the professors...they reassure you that this out-of-control, feels like you're treading water and barely keeping your head above the surface, "I can't do this" feeling is normal. Then they tell you that it's only going to get worse with each semester. And the truth is that they're right. Year one, despite the challenging transition of beginning a professional education, is probably the easiest. You sit through classes and do your best to pass. Year two is marked by the boards, a day of exams that determines the kind of residency you'll land. Third year is the start of clinical rotations, where someone's life is in your hands. By the end of year four, you're a graduate and expected to be capable of practicing medicine on your own. Then begins residency where you're more than likely in a new city, meeting new colleagues, and actually being a doctor.

So what do you do? How do you get past that out-of-control, feels like you're treading water and barely keeping your head above the surface, "I can't do this" feeling?

I've learned to accept it all. This is the life I chose and I can either turn away and run in the opposite direction (believe me, that's tempting) or I can face it head on and deal with it. So I'm facing it head on and learning how to survive medical school.

- A support system is crucial. I'm fortunate to have found a close group of friends in class that are not only my study group, but are also my venting group. The first few minutes of our study sessions are devoted to getting all of our frustrations out on the table. Those few minutes are probably the most important out of the whole week.

- You learn to take stock in the simple things that make you happy and hold onto them for dear life. For me, that's food. So after our first set of exams last Monday (3 exams in one day, a total of seven hours), I hopped on the first subway straight to Whole Foods. My mind was mush and I was barely coherent, but the colorful and aromatic environment of foodie heaven was enough to restore me to near human resemblance.

- Triage. The amount of work is overwhelming, and that's putting it mildly. So you assess the study load and figure out the priorities. You figure out which classes need immediate attention and which can be left in the "waiting room". It's a balancing act, but you learn to accept it and deal with it...and eventually respect it and enjoy it.
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