The summer after my first year of medical school went by in a blur: cardiology in San Francisco, global health in India, and a quick family visit. As usual, I tried to cram too much into too little time and found myself with just four days to reflect and distill my experiences before starting year two.
At the end of those four days, I found myself facing 100 pairs of expectant eyes — those of the new first-year students about to embark on the journey I had just completed. And they wanted something from me.
What they wanted were those precious gems, the secrets that helped me get through the first year of medical school. I'm sad to say I met their first few inquiries with a blank stare and stuttered response. Four days simply hadn't been enough time to really think things through.
As I write this, the incoming class is gearing up to begin anatomy, the first truly intensive course of their medical careers and, for most, their first time in the cadaver labs. Books and movies often present this course as a grueling and distasteful rite of passage in the medical world.
For me, anatomy seems long ago, lost in the multitude of new experiences the past year has presented. If I take a minute to look back, I can still recall the intensity of those first few weeks. The hours spent repeating all the bones, muscles, nerves, arteries, and veins. The agony of trying to remember which do what. The times I showed up after midnight hoping the lab would be less crowded and I could get some private time with the donors who had generously given their bodies so I might learn.
The sheer amount of material seemed overwhelming. My confidence began to waver, and free time became scarce. I remember doubting myself and wondering more than once if I was really cut out for this.
Then, around mid-year, I found my stride. Somewhere, in the mess of biochemistry and anatomy, I had lost touch with what brought me to medicine. The day I found an extra reserve, a little bit of strength left when I thought was totally spent, came when I did my first patient interview for Introduction to Clinical Medicine. I walked in ready to collect a patient history by firing through a list of standard questions I had memorized.
In the hour that followed, something truly wonderful happened. I became reacquainted with the idealism and empathy that had led me to medicine. I realized how much I cared about what this woman was going through, and how much I wanted to build a skill set to help me make her life, and other lives, better. I delved into a conversation with her that included few pre-planned questions but gathered all the information I needed to create a full patient history-and allowed me to get to know her as a person as well.
When I got up to leave, my patient stopped me and said, “What was your name dear? Jacqueline? Well, Jacqueline, I really enjoyed talking to you, and I think you are going to make a fine doctor someday.”
I left the hospital that day feeling recharged and ready for anything. For the first time in medical school, I felt like I was indeed learning to be a doctor. Days like that, the ones when I worked face to face with another human being in need of help-those were the secret. They were what got me through my first year.
Finally, I had an answer to give all those new students that I felt was honest, heartfelt, and worth its weight in gold: "No matter how caught up you get in medical school, don't ever forget that the reason you are here is to become a doctor.