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Over the weekend I found myself once again in the library slogging through a set of physics homework problems, while simultaneously engaging in the age-old procrastination technique of chatting with a friend online.

Friend: What are you learning about anyway?

Me: Electric charges, forces and fields.

Friend: Fun?

Me: Not even remotely.

Friend: And that is going to make you a better doctor because…?

Me: Because I’ll theoretically someday understand how MRI machines work? Let me get back to you on that one.

I’ve been asked that question a number of times. Why physics? How does my ability to calculate the attractive force between two charged particles help heal the sick? Actual medical students will tell that they don’t use any of it the moment they’re free of the class. Physics professors and textbook authors put up pictures of medical machines invented by physicists and throw in practice questions about blood pressure and traction rigs. Last semester’s physics TA suggested that they want us to be better analytical thinkers. One of the doctors I talked to thinks it’s a conspiracy to bulk up funding for physics departments in major universities.

There has thus far been no satisfying answer as to why physics is one of the core requirements for medical school. Whereas biology and organic chemistry have a clear connection to body function, it’s hard to see a situation in which doctor would need to understand more than the most simple of physical concepts. Even the professors who teach it seem to be at a bit of a loss as to why their classroom is filled with pre-med students.

Which is why, when I ran across this article about the concussion epidemic found in professional football players, it surprised me how many physics concept played a crucial role in the medicine described.

The article focuses on the physical dangers inherent in playing professional football; in particular the long term brain damage that can result from multiple small concussions sustained over a career in the sport. It also highlights the reluctance with which the football community accepted this danger.

It also, to my narrowed point of view, points out the danger of underestimating physics as it applies to medicine. Sports doctors used to take a “shake it off” mentality toward head injury, throwing players who had sustained concussions back into the game with minimal recovery time. From physics, however, we know that when two objects of known mass and velocity collide, there are actual quantifiable concepts, like energy and momentum, that can indicate the level of damage that has taken place. It’s not that a doctor might be asked to complete complex physical equations in the midst of a medical crisis, but understanding the concepts can provide indicators for doctors. Physics can add to the clues; pointing a physician in the direction of a symptom that might not be immediately obvious.

What does this mean for football? Well, I’ll leave that to writers more versed in the sport than I. As always, the politics of medicine are nearly as complex as the science itself, especially given the fierce culture surrounding the sport. Still, it’s nice to see that some of my seemingly futile struggles might be moving me somewhat in the direction I intend to progress.

 

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Wow, it’s day two of the new semester and I’m already behind on my resolutions. It’s been well over a week since I’ve updated. How embarrassing.

My first day back included the age-old ritual of taking prospective postbac applicants out to lunch. For anyone who might not have gone through the whole “interviewing at an academic institution” deal (for my own part I missed out on it when applying to undergrad), most of the day is generally devoted to touring the campus, sitting in on a class and having lunch with a few members of the current class before or after the actual interviews.

I am not really a fan of the process and managed to go through it only once when applying to postbac programs (at a school I ultimately chose not to attend.) I found myself seated across from a second applicant; a financier from New York dressed in a sharp suit who spoke extensively about his volunteer work in the Emergency Department of a hospital near his home. I, on the other hand, having grossly underestimated the caliber of program to which I was applying, was dressed in my work clothes, having driven straight from teaching a class, and was acutely aware that my lack of volunteer experience was the biggest hole in my application.

We were then herded to a “sample” class. This turned out to be organic chemistry. If you don’t know anything about organic chemistry, as I didn’t at the time, it is not a subject easily entered mid-topic, even with a decent understanding of general chemistry. For someone who hadn’t taken a science class in over seven years, it was akin to watching an incredibly boring movie in Japanese – without a bathroom break. “It’s okay if you don’t understand anything,” our student ambassadors told us before we sat down. Well sure, great, no pressure. But what exactly am I supposed to be learning about the school sitting on my butt for an hour and fifteen minutes listening to gibberish? It certainly didn’t help that the students seemed only marginally more confidant with the material.

And so by the time I reached the actual interview portion of my “interview day,” I was utterly relieved to just sit down and answer questions. I’m good at talking about myself, I’m passionate about wanting to be a doctor, and, all evidence of the day to the contrary, I was really sure that I would make this program proud if they let me in.

Needless to say, it was not a disappointment when my schedule prevented me from repeating the experience with the other programs. (Although one was a phone interview, a different but equally awkward experience.)

As it turns out, I don’t mind the experience nearly so much from the other side of things. First of all, you get a free lunch out of the deal. As a student living off loans, free food always seems like a good idea. Second, as previously noted, I don’t have any problem talking about myself or reflecting on my experience in the program. I’m at my most optimistic when answering questions about classes, shadowing and applying to medical school. And none of this has to be done solo, because they always ask two postbacs to go to lunch together. Everyone wins!

It was actually rather nice way to ease back into the semester; a break in the midst of trying to fit back into a now unfamiliar schedule. I suppose I should enjoy it while it lasts. By spring I will become a prospective student again and a few months after that it will be back to enduring the interview day all over again.

I’m utterly terrible with free time. The minute I get any significant amount of it, I waste it away doing completely inane tasks that usually involve a screen of some sort. Tell me my free time is running out, however, and suddenly I find myself in a coffee shop, sipping an overpriced, over-sweet espresso drink and working on the novel I was fairly certain I had abandoned back when I started filling out applications for postbac programs.

With one week left before the start of classes and the end of life as I know it, I have become the cliche that I was never quite able to adhere to when it would have been most fitting. And I kind of don’t want to give it up.

Make no mistake, I have no second thoughts about medical school or the postbac program. It’s just that I did pretty well last semester, and right now all of my prospects seem golden. I’m a little terrified of this next round. No matter how many exams I pass, I’m always convinced it was a fluke and ever uncertain that I can pull it off again. Right now I can pretend to be an amazing writing, healing, science ass-kicking machine who might apply to Harvard Med just because no one has laughed at the idea so far. In a week, though, I will be the insecure, struggling postbac student who is intimidated by her weekly grocery shopping trip. Nobody likes a humbling experience, even when you can spot it coming.

Writing is my defense mechanism. It’s like how some people only clean their house when they get stressed out. If I’m under pressure to write, I struggle. If I have nothing to do, I struggle. The minute something more important looms, I become an unstoppable wordsmith. If I could find a way to harness this energy, I’m fairly certain I could take over the world.

What I ought be doing is getting myself ready for the new semester. I’m not really sure how to go about that, precisely, but I have a few ideas. I should probably buy some more notebooks and stop sleeping late every day. I really should organize the paperwork that has taken over every inch of desk space. I also had noble plans to practice a few recipes so I don’t have to live entirely off of frozen and canned meals next semester.

Or I can figure out the next scene of action and adventure in a story that will probably never be read by another living soul.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

My volunteer work at Planned Parenthood started again this past weekend. I’ve finally started doing options education with some supervision and should be flying solo soon. I was also invited to watch an abortion procedure take place.

In massage school we talked a lot about the honor of being allowed to lay hands on our clients. Here are perfect strangers who are willing to undress and allow you to touch them quite intimately. They are trusting you not to hurt them, not to mock them, and not to take advantage of them. It is a heavy responsibility; one that has been abused just enough in the past to carry a stigma with it. And yet people keep coming back and keep trusting.

Being invited into the procedure room felt like that privilege tenfold. The women on the table were as exposed and vulnerable as anyone I have ever seen. And there I was, no visible purpose, hovering at the edge of the room attempting not to look like I was trying to get a good view.

The procedure itself takes about five minutes at the most. The doctor was friendly, firm and matter-of-fact. He told them everything he was doing before he did it. He even warned them before he started to talk to to me, explaining a bit of the anatomy involved.  I watched and nodded and tried to absorb everything I could.

After every massage I was taught to thank my client before leaving the room. It’s a habit I engaged in inconsistently when I worked in the field, but I always liked the spirit behind it. Even if I didn’t speak the words, I always tried to convey through my final contact that I was thankful for their trust and respectful of their bodies.

I wish there were some way I could convey to the two women I watched how thankful I was that they accepted my presence. No one wants to be the body the new doctor learns on; no one wants to feel like their problems are on display. And yet both women, as scared and uncertain as they were, accepted my presence without question. All I could do was smile reassuringly and try to convey as much respect and non-judgement in their direction as possible.

The sense of privilege wears off. By the time you’ve laid hands on fifty bodies, the sense of the client’s vulnerability ceases to hold the same poignancy. By one hundred it is even fainter. I reached a point as a therapist where I had to remind myself to pause and recognize that I was doing something special. I expect the same will occur in medicine. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; the doctor at the clinic was reassuring in his casual manner. But as I have several years ahead of me as the  a student in the procedure rooms, I really hope I can maintain that sense of honor at being allowed to see these patients at some of the most exposed moments in their lives.

What’s the best way to procrastinate writing the amazing personal statement that will awe the medical school admissions boards into silence and/or tears with its eloquence? How about updating my blog? Yeah, that works.

Personal statements walk that precarious line between the personal and the professional. The idea is to write something heartfelt and honest about why medicine is the career for you without sounding fake or overly familiar or exceeding five hundred words. Challenge extended.

The trouble is, there is no simple reason why medicine is right for me. There are a dozen different reasons why I am where I am right now. Some of them are completely random, like the guy who replied to my comment about wishing I could do college over again as a premed by telling me to take the classes I need and do it anyway. Some of them, like the AP Biology class I took in high school, were completely ignored for years as I pursued my writing dreams. And some are just hard to describe, like the slow build of confidence that took me from meek freshman to opinionated postbac.

When you’re a kid looking toward your future, anything goes. Doctor, astronaut, bus driver; they all involve doing things you can barely contemplate. There’s no thought to schooling, or income, or social status; even feasibility doesn’t play a big role (I’m pretty sure I wanted to be a mermaid for a considerable amount of my childhood.) By the time we’re able to think critically about any of these possibilities, we’re old enough to have started to form a sense of self; certain jobs are easy to identify than others.

I come from a literary family. Both of my parents are writers and editors, and after reading James and Giant Peach in second grade, I was wandering out of the library with stacks of books taller than myself. It made all the sense in the world that I should do something that involved words. I also decided that if I was going to be really amazingly good at something, and what was the point otherwise, I had to determine what that was as quickly as possible so I could get started. Thus at age thirteen I began to write a novel. I never finished it (as I recall it involved Easter confetti and a trip to an alternate dimension), but I had decided that I was going to be a writer and that was that.

If my thirteen year old self could see me now, she would be very disappointed. (Well, maybe not right now, seeing as I’m actively sitting in front of a computer typing at the moment.) Deciding to go into medicine, in her eyes, would be giving up. Despite all of the rebuttals I have prepared when confronted with that accusation in an interview or application, that sense of failure is still a part of me. How do I convince a medical admissions board that I’m completely committed to my new path in life, when part of me is ashamed to have given up on the old path.

Ironically, writing is also what has me convinced that I’m on the right track. When writing was my major goal in life, everything else I did revolved around creating time to write. Yet the more time I managed to carve out for myself, the more inane activities I managed to find to fill it. (It’s truly amazing how much of a day one can lose to the Internet if one really works at it.) I find I’m the most engaged with my surroundings when I’m in an environment where I’m learning, and the more engaged I am with the world, the easier writing becomes.

In my statement I want to convey that my passion for medicine hasn’t replaced or overtaken my passion for writing; I have simply shifted my perspective to allow them to coexist. I’m not flighty, and I’m not the sort of person to give up on a dream. I also want to make it clear that medicine is my priority. I may not have always known this was what I wanted for myself, but that had more to do with what I thought myself capable of than my interest. And finally I want to make it absolutely clear that now–thanks to high school, undergrad, massage school, several jobs and my halting attempts to be a great writer–I am absolutely sure that I will make a good doctor. Perhaps even a great one.

Hm…excellent brainstorm session. Now to stretch that paragraph out to a full page complete with anecdotes and catchy turns of phrase. I suppose now it’s time for round two.