Pilot Light

Our first medical school exam a few weeks ago was nothing short of demoralizing. I have never had the confidence I walked in with so completely mocked and torn to shreds. And it wasn’t for lack of studying but for studying the wrong way. I was not alone in this either. With most of my classmates, we felt lost with little guidance of how to proceed. The material alone is not what has made school so difficult; rather it has been the overwhelming cluelessness of what to be doing and how to be doing it. Information is being thrown at you faster than you can see it coming. It seems most of my time has been spent shuffling around books, apps, flashcards, online videos, and anatomy coloring books rather than learning the material they contain.

Second years forewarned us of this by giving a new meaning to FOMO, the term that has infected our generation. No longer is it the Fear Of Missing Out on social happenings, but rather missing out on the best study technique; feeling overwhelmed by the sense that everyone else is doing something different and breezing through material, running laps around you when you stumble around trying to grasp just the most basic concepts. The stress of this alone has been enough for me to fantasize of what the old days of medical education were like; when learning was done out of one solitary textbook. That everyone shared. That was chained to a desk in the basement of the library. That you could only read by candlelight.

But days of such blissful zen are long behind us. Now there is an app that gives you a 3D skeleton model you can dress with layers of muscle, nerves, arteries, lymphatics, while zooming in and out, rotating around 360 degrees to see it from every angle. There are mnemonics for every plexus, and then mnemonics to remember the mnemonics. But they all follow the same golden rule: the dirtier, the more likely to remember.

What were those 12 cranial nerves again?

  1. Olfactory
  2. Optic
  3. Oculomotor
  4. Trochlear
  5. Trigeminal
  6. Abducent
  7. Facial
  8. Vestibulocular
  9. Glossopharyngeal
  10. Vagus
  11. Accessory
  12. Hypoglossal

Oh, Oh, Oh, To Touch And Feel Very Good Vag…… you can fill in the rest.

But all these only take you so far. After the exam I went to talk with the head of the anatomy department, seeking guidance on where best to turn for help. I told him that as a “non-traditional” student, I don’t have a strong science background and want to make sure I am setting myself for success with effective study habits early on. He asked what I studied in undergrad. When I replied Humanities and Latin American Studies, he paused, and asked, “so how did you end up here?” Great. While I’ll give him benefit of the doubt that he asked this in genuine curiosity, it was not the response I was hoping for. He repeated the question constantly nagging at the back of my mind, fueling the infamous imposter-syndrome. So I gave him the scripted answer I give everyone and moved alone. The rest of the meeting was uneventfully helpful, and I walked away with some studying approaches.

But I also walked away with a new question that has been on my mind ever since. Why do I feel it necessary to share up front that I don’t “have a science background”? How relevant is this information to the conversation, or do I use it as a protective buffer? Am I trying to preface my comments so that any ignorant slip-ups may be given a free pass, excused with my supposed lack experience? Perhaps, just maybe, if I set expectations low enough, the possibility of success seems actually attainable. 

But really, who am I trying to convince? It is much easier to judge ourselves through other people than to answer our own questions honestly. Questions such as, do I deserve to be here, am I smart enough, am I cut out for the challenges ahead of me?

Selective amnesia in moments of reflection such of these cause us to forget our accomplishments getting to this point. Whether they be the inexplicable obstacles life throws in our way, or in my case, a premed postbacc from hell, when we rise to confront such challenges, we can surprise even ourselves. When we begin weak and vulnerable sometimes we find strengths we didn’t know we had; and if I have done it once, then best bet is I can do it again. Downplaying the successful work I have done serves no one, least of all myself.

Well, in reassessing the mother of all questions: will I survive medical school? One thing is for sure, the person to answer that question sure isn’t my lab director.

So I hit the books. Losing myself and a sense of time as I combed through the diagrams, questions, and lectures. My new best friends became my neon colored pencils, my sharpener, and the wonderful TAs who stay behind to walk me through anatomical structures and quiz me on radiographs, which I pay for with a hearty supply of jokes.

The body is like a large jigsaw puzzle; once the boarders are formed, the other pieces are easier to fit together, and an image starts to appear. If there is one thing I have always loved, it is a good puzzle. Slowly but surely, I am learning this one. Taking my time with each piece, being careful where I place it and how it fits with its surroundings. 

On Friday we had our second exam. While I have yet to get my scores, I can say with confidence and unabashed pride that I finished with a smile on my face, turing to high-five people as they walked out the door. Because sometimes just a little spark of encouragement is all we need to light the fire under our ass.

And here is to keeping that pilot light burning!

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