You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2010.

A year ago I was a few days past my interview with the postbac program I eventually decided to attend. I was working two jobs; one as a massage therapist in a wellness center, the other teaching anatomy and physiology at a massage school. I had been volunteering at a trauma center for about three weeks and was nervously eager to continue. I was half excited, half skeptical about my future and what the upcoming year would bring.

A year from now I will have finished the postbac program, taken the MCAT, completed two rounds of medical school applications and likely many interviews. I may have been accepted to a few places. I may even know where I’m going to be next year. I will have a glide year job or two that I will be expecting to leave come fall.

Instead of making new year’s resolutions, I’ve decided to limit my sights to the end of the postbac year. Most of my resolutions beyond that would be a foregone conclusion; get into med school, don’t screw up the MCAT etc. Right now my mind is still trying to wrap itself around part three of medical boot camp; so I’m keeping my resolutions small and short sighted. Incidentally, a disproportionate amount seem to involve food.

The Resolutions

  1. Stop complaining so much about physics
  2. Cook something each weekend that can be consumed throughout the next week
  3. Update the blog at least once a week.
  4. Find the perfect portable sandwich to bring to school. Or better yet, discover a few different options so I don’t end up completely sick of it by week three.
  5. Stop complaining so much about physics.

I anticipate having the most problems with resolutions one and five. I trust you, my beloved readers, to keep me on track if the ranting gets out of control.

Here’s to a happy  and healthy (but not too healthy) New Year to everyone!

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My new year’s resolution is going to be to stop complaining so much about physics. In the meantime though…

Our final physics unit was on thermodynamics. There are three laws of thermodynamics that summarized pretty much amount to: “Heat makes the universe go ‘round and we’re running out.” Or, as our textbook put it, at some point all of the heat will move from the hot objects in space, like stars, to the colder objects, like planets. And when everything is all evened out, like a coffee cup in a cold room, the universe will “cease to do anything of particular interest.” (Of interest to whom, I wonder, as the human race will be dead long before then.)

Awfully depressing, really, the universe is basically a big clock winding down. But wait! says our textbook, What about life? Life must be an exception, because we’re all such organized, un-entropic beings who create order out of the expanding chaos of our worlds. We build houses! And roads! And eat food that we turn into energy to make things like DNA and babies! Doesn’t this fly in the face of the increasing entropy of the universe?

Ha! says the physics textbook. You would think that, but you would be wrong, like the foolish little non-physicist that you are. (Okay, it didn’t read quite like that, but I’m sure that’s what the author was thinking to himself at the time.) No, in fact we are but contributors to the eventual stagnation of the universe. Because every time we try to work against entropy, we end up expending more energy, and thus contributing more entropy to the universe than we undid in the first place. Like your air conditioner or your freezer, we are but inefficient engines pumping disorder into the universe. Your life is futile, for every step forward you take two steps back. Or, as our professor succinctly put it: “We as living beings are organized and the universe hates us. See you for your final exam next week.”

Ah, I thought to myself. Now I have proof. Physics really does hate me!

But wait a minute. I mean, I’m as pessimistic as the next guy, but really? That’s where you’re going to end it; the universe hates life and we’re all going to die at lukewarm temperatures? That’s not an end to any conversation; it’s the beginning. If we’re all winding down like a great cosmic clock, then who wound us up in the first place? Somehow the hot stuff became hot and the cold stuff became cold and I realize we didn’t have time to go into all the ins and outs of how that happened, but it least bears mentioning, right?

I’m not a religious person, but I’m always a bit surprised to find how antithetical spirituality is to scientists. It’s not that I think theology belongs in a physics lecture, but I do think there is time to work in a little awe. I don’t care if you think God put it in motion or if you think particles and waves just happened to collide in the right way to bring us to the present moment. Life. Is. Really. Freaking. Cool. I can’t imagine any reason to study science other than because on some level you’re a little blown away by it all. (I’m sure there are people who study science for other reasons, but I rather pity them.)

In a way it was poetic. After a semester of futilely struggling to stay afloat in a class that was more alienating than educational, I feel as though physics was true to the last. As was I in my disdain. If that was physics’ parting message for me, then I counter with Shakespeare: “There are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Hospitals are not the easiest places to navigate. It’s hard enough when you’re a patient; patients have clearly marked entrances and front desks and large signs that tell them what part of the hospital they’re in, and often which direction to find their target location. It’s slightly different for a student, who is generally assumed to know where they’re going, and even more so for a student who is not quite a part of the hospital system.

To get from the undergraduate section of campus to the medical school library, which is where I do most of my studying, one has to walk across two quads and across a rather busy street. It’s about a fifteen minute walk, and on a nice day that’s perfectly reasonable. When it’s 30 degrees, windy and raining, however, there are two alternate routes that lead through the winding corridors of hospital buildings that allow you to spend about half of the walk indoors.

One of these routes I learned when I started shadowing. I had to meet the clerkship coordinator in one of the west end buildings and follow her through twisting corridors and up and down stairs to the main hospital. At the end of my shift, I had to wind my way back through the hallways to her office to retrieve my backpack. It was sink or swim, and after that I knew a great way to cut through the building without having to step out into the blistering 85 degree weather until I was safely across the street.

There were a few problems with this approach, though, the first being that, while it was a great way to get back from the library, the front doors were locked to anyone trying to get in from the other direction. Reasonable, given that the building in question was mainly administrative offices that didn’t need an endless stream of noisy undergrads and med students using their building as a thoroughfare.

So one rainy afternoon, I decided to try to cut through the other building. This part of the hospital was devoted to outpatient care; clinics where the sick-but-not-too-sick-and-insured go to get procedures or check ups. These doors were not barred to be, and from the outside of the building I could see a straight shot from the entrance to the sky walk that crossed the street. Brilliant right?

Not once, but twice I attempted this genius shortcut. I walked through endless hallways and corridors, twisting passageways with exit signs where no exit appeared to exist. I followed signs for different areas of the hospital that surely must be close to something I might recognize. I meandered past long rows of administrative offices and turn offs for eye care surgeries, urology clinics and cancer radiation until finally, after my fifteen minute walk had become forty-five, I found myself in the main hospital, on the wrong floor in the midst of the usual busy weekday.

All this was made the more awkward by how intensely I did not belong in that complex of the hospital. The doctors I passed were in suits and lab coats; I, a twenty-something student with headphones and thirty pounds of books in my bag, was clearly out of place. I literally didn’t fit; said overstuffed backpack making it difficult to maneuver through hallways that, unlike the main hospital, were never intended to fit gurneys or wheelchairs. I tried to walk with purpose, but I clearly had no idea where I was going.

Yesterday was my final exam for organic chemistry, which was at two in the afternoon (not nine, as I’d been utterly convinced the day before) so I headed to the library to study beforehand. It was a particularly cold day, so as I headed back to the main campus I thought, better cut through. Now I could easily have gone my usual route, through the building that is locked going the other way, but in my infinite wisdom, I thought to myself, “Or I could go back through the other building and once and for all figure out how to go that way.”  Looking out the windows of the sky walk I could see a straight shot of where I wanted to go. Walk straight, turn left, exit. Piece of cake.

As you can probably predict I. Got. Lost. Again. Fortunately I had left with more than enough time to get to my exam because my “straight shot” managed to require a good fifteen minutes of my time just to get across the street. I thought I was walking in a straight line, but somehow, in the windowless corridors, I managed to proceed about ten yards in the time it would have normally taken me to get to campus. I felt like I’d fallen into parallel universe. Where had I been all that time?

When I finally emerged from the building I was only about halfway to my intended destination and had lost enough time as to make even the slightly longer time in the comforting warmth of the indoors completely without worth.

And so it is with this understanding, that I admit defeat. In the future, I suppose, I’ll just have to be cold.

We had a speaker come in and talk to the postbacs last Wednesday, and for the first time since I started this program a doctor stood before me and said in no uncertain terms that we were all in for a fantastic ride. I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I was missing exactly that statement.

There are a few major reactions I get when I explain to people what I’m doing. Usually the first reaction is surprise; especially people who have known me for awhile give me a look that says, “You? Really? But why?” They quickly get with the program, though,  and enthusiasm abounds. I’m good at selling my story at this point; the journey from English major and writer to aspiring physician. It all sounds wonderfully adventurous, and the reality of years of schooling, debt and lack of sleep can be ignored for the glamour we’re shown on shows like Grey’s Anatomy and House

Next the conversation drifts toward the many controversies in medicine; the high rate of infection in hospitals, health insurance and the health care bill, that one doctor who did that really unethical thing that was in the paper the other day. I draw on my limited knowledge of medical politics and become the informal representative of the doctors perspective. We talk about the problems in the medicine today, we talk about the futility of finding permanent solutions. In my head I vow to do better someday, but deep down I wonder if that will be possible.

One of the fellows I worked with when I was shadowing listened to the tale of the postbac program and nodded thoughtfully at me. “That sounds good,” he said, “You still have time to change your mind.”

It wasn’t the first such statement I had received from various attendings, residents and medical students at the hospital, but it brought me up short.

“I don’t think I will,” I answered slowly. “The longer I’m in the program the more I’m sure this is what I want to do.”

He looked skeptical but said, “No of course not. It’s a wonderful profession,” as though he didn’t really believe himself.

The comment was unsettling, but it wasn’t until another postbac showed up bubbling with excitement over a meeting with an MD/MPH that I realized how much the consistent negativity was getting to me. “This woman,” she exclaimed, “She loved her job. I haven’t met any doctors who seem to love what they’re doing.”

I opened my mouth, ready to protest, but found that I couldn’t. The statement wasn’t entirely accurate; I’d met many doctors who seemed quite happy with their choice of careers and who have been supportive of my own efforts in that direction. But I also could not point to a single example of a physician who had bubbled over with excitement the way my friend was describing. How frustrating, I thought. I’m still so sure this is what I want to do with my life, but everyone around me seems to be supporting me more out of habit than out of a genuine excitement for the journey.

It was, therefore, perfect timing when this particular speaker came to talk to us that afternoon.

He sat at the front of our classroom with a smile on his face and said, “You will love this profession; you will have so much fun provided one thing: that you want to do the things that doctors do.”

He went on: “Medical school will be so much fun. It will be like going to Hogwarts; you’ll get to do potions, you’ll look inside people’s bodies. You will do magic. You will get to help people, which is the greatest gift of all. There is nothing more rewarding than when a patient gives you a hug or thanks you for helping them.”

I could write ten blog entries on different tidbits of wisdom I picked up over the course of that talk. “Start thinking about why you’re doing something before you start thing about how to do something.” “There is great value in learning something you didn’t know you wanted to know; there is great value in a lack of specificity.” “Learn to follow every statement with the word ‘because.’ ‘I think the patient has pneumonia instead of a blood clot because….’”

And yet it was that first declaration that I think I needed to hear more than anything else. Yes, I thought, That’s me. I want to do the things that doctors do! More importantly, I want to be excited to do the things that doctors do.

I’ve found very few people who passionately love their jobs in a way that is palpable, and many of the people who do have jobs that hold little interest for me. I don’t expect every doctor I meet to brim with excitement at the prospect of another day on the job, just as I doubt I will ever be a shining example of optimism in the face of difficulty. (Well, maybe on paper sometimes. I hope.) I refuse to take any of it as a sign that I’m on the wrong track. But it was a relief to finally hear someone stand up and say, “You’re in for a hell of a ride, and it is going to be AWESOME.”