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“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

You have probably heard that saying (or some version of it…I have a knack for butchering quotations) before. It usually applies to some part of a person’s life, although I’ve always felt that relationships were a particularly ripe arena for such behavior. We all have a friend, or are the sort ourselves, who fall for the same “type” over and over again and are continually bewildered when things don’t work out. Again. For exactly the same reason they didn’t work out the first ten times.

I’m realizing, as I dive into yet another unit of my education, that I have just such an insane relationship with medicine.

It goes like this:

I look ahead at the coming week, and inevitably I find something to get excited about. Perhaps we are going to be learning about cancer, or bacteria, or delve into pharmacology or the ethics of end-of-life care. It is medical school, so there is obviously going to be some medically related theme, and I, it turns out, am a sucker for wanting to know about medicine. (No big surprise there, otherwise there are a lot of questions you might be asking about how I ended up here in the first place.)

I get excited. And I make plans for how amazingly well I am going to study this subject and how intricately I am going to learn all of the details. And then the week begins.

The trouble is, medical school is hard. Just as surely as I will get excited about what we are to be learning, I will also hit a wall where I just don’t know that I can learn it all. Sometimes the concepts are complex. Often it is just the sheer amount of material piling up before me; lists of microbes and drugs and pathways that I swear are more numerous than neurons of the human brain. No matter how much I want to know the information or how interested I was the weekend before, no matter how convinced I was that this week was going to be different, I am overwhelmed and quite sure I will never learn it all.

Eventually the week comes to an end, often bringing with it some sort of assessment, and seemingly by the skin of my teeth and a bit of luck, I manage to do pretty okay. I curse myself because, well I’m perfectionist and even in a pass/fail system doing pretty okay makes me nervous. I tell myself that next time I am going to nail the material into my brain so hard I will carry it to the grave.

I look at the next week’s material. We’re learning about viruses.

I love viruses.

Seriously, how weird is this thing?
Source: Wikipedia

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We are two exams into medical school, and I am starting to lose the ability to converse in a socially acceptable manner.

This was already a delicate situation. Since even before postbac I have become increasingly difficult to watch television shows with. I point out medical errors, incorrect logical assumptions and bad scientific methods pretty much as I see them. My parents think it’s cute. Everyone else has taken me off their movie-night guest list.

Now, however, the endless solo study hours are starting to affect my daily interactions. I ran into a fellow med student as I was leaving the library after a ten hour study session the other day and our interaction went something like this:

Her: Hey, how is it going?

Me: I…it…good…think it is. You are doing, how?

Her: ::nervous laugh:: I’m pretty stressed too. Uh…good luck?

Me: I words hard find. Sleep now. Bye.

That was a good day. After a particularly unproductive study session, with the weight of my worries and my backpack weighing me down, the slightest hint of sympathy is downright dangerous. I find myself telling perfect strangers about the genetics paper I haven’t written yet, or that the real problem with studying biochemistry is that all the enzymes have the same names. The guy I buy coffee from every day knows the structure of our exam questions and my roommate has heard several blow-by-blow accounts of classes I’ve found particularly frustrating. In my head I am thinking, this person doesn’t care about the stupid class exercise you did today. This person is a CVS employee who just wished you a nice afternoon. She would probably like to return to her magazine. STOP TALKING.  And yet the poorly syntaxed words spill out.

I always figured that the classic physician stereotype of not being able to talk to their patients came from the general personality type attracted to medicine. We’re folks who like to know how things work, and for the most part the content of our studies is geared toward the technical side of things. But now I’m starting to wonder there isn’t a certain amount of unlearning of basic communication that occurs simultaneously with stuffing one’s head full of facts. I’ve heard statistics on how medical training can dull one’s sense of compassion; perhaps one’s sense of coherency suffers as well.

On the other hand, it might just be me. And it might just improve, given a few more group study sessions and a week off to breathe.

In the meantime, let me know if my writing starts to nosedive into incoherent babbling. And be very sure you want a full answer to your question when inquiring how things are going.

I’ve feared it, I’ve bemoaned it, I’ve ignored it — but the time has finally come. I’m going to start studying for the MCAT.

MCAT, for anyone who might not have been obsessing about this for the past six months, stands for Medical College Admissions Test. It is required for admission into every reputable medical school in the U.S. In an age where the GREs and the SATs are increasingly disparaged as in inaccurate measure of intelligence and are slowly disappearing from undergraduate and graduate applications, the MCAT exam continues to haunt the dreams of pre-meds nationwide.

There are four parts to the exam; biological sciences, which include biology and organic chemistry, physical sciences, physics and inorganic chemistry, a verbal section similar to the SATs or GREs, and a writing section that is graded separately on a bizarre scale of J-T. Each of the other sections is scored out of 15 points, for a total of 45. As far as I’m aware the maximum score is mythical; most students who get into medical school score in the 30s. One former postbac scored a 42 a few years ago and it’s still spoken of with a reverent tone.

I’ve never been much of a fan of standardized tests. I barely slept the night before I took the national exam for massage therapy, and that was pass/fail. The MCAT is like the mother of all final exams; the anxiety of every chemistry, organic, physics and bio test combined with a splash of fear that my verbal skills will desert me in my time of need. Let me put it to you this way; if I were offered instead to be jabbed with hot pokers for the four hours of the exam and be assured a reasonable score I’d probably do it.

Since the start of the program, the MCAT has existed in the back of my mind as a vague worry, but the full-fledged fear didn’t kick in until we were sent home with our study guides right before winter break. You know those three hundred page paperback SAT/LSAT/GRE study guides? That’s what I was expecting. Instead I was sent home clutching a four-book boxed set; the kind that comes in a cardboard case so you can keep them all together and then wrapped in plastic so none of the volumes can slip out.

The moment I returned to my apartment the study guide went up onto my bookshelf and remained there, untouched, for the duration of break and the start of semester. Other students talked about peeling the plastic wrapping off or starting in on a section or two; my study guide and I just eyed each other distrustingly as we went about our business.

Sadly, though, my days of obliviousness had to come to an end. Spring break arrived and with it the last of obstinacy. Before leaving on break I steeled myself and ripped the plastic from the cardboard case. Figuring my course load would be enough to keep most subjects fresh in my mind, I extracted the chemistry and the verbal reasoning volumes and slipped them into my backpack beside lab manuals and textbooks.

It’s strange; going into the postbac I felt as though I were signing my life away. Even though I knew it was just the first step on a much longer journey, I didn’t really consider the fact that it would someday be over. Now I’m two months away from the end. Terrifying as studying for the MCAT may be, it’s exhilarating to realize how much closer to my goal I’ve become.

For the first summer session and the first semester I had a non-portable laptop.

How can a laptop be unportable, you might ask? Isn’t the primary purpose of a laptop that it can be taken from place to place? Don’t you mean you had a desktop computer?

To spare you the full tale of my computer woes, the short version is that my computer lacked that essential laptop capability to close, and thus be placed into a backpack and transported anywhere useful besides my desk and my bed. So I never took my laptop to class.

I didn’t miss it, for the most part. Very few assignments required me to type anything and I could log onto the Internet at any number of locations in the various libraries on campus. Not to mention that distracting pastimes, such as talking to friends online or checking my email obsessively were restricted to short(ish) breaks between active studying.

However, my beloved laptop, which I still required for distracting myself from school-related activities when at home, had problems beyond its lack of closure and it was easy to get jealous of the very portable computers the other students in my cohort carried around. Eventually it became clear that I was going to need to obtain a new laptop, so over winter break I shelled out far too much money for a shiny new one.

Which brings me to this week’s topic; the dangers of getting what you want. Because now I have a laptop that I can easily slip into my backpack between lab manuals and textbooks, so it comes to school with me every day. Which means that, mid-physics problem, I can tell a good friend about my day or reply to an email about a shadowing opportunity, or, oh yeah, write a blog entry. Laptop portability may have increased, but my productivity has taken a nosedive.

Easy solution, though; just stop bringing it with me to class in the first place, right? But as anyone who has ever acquired a new piece of technology can tell you, once you begin to rely on something, it’s almost impossible to give it up. I’ve forgotten how to be a non-computered student. How do I take notes in bio without my computer? How do I cram for that lab quiz if I can’t access the power point slides from the lecture the other day? What if I get an important email!? I can no longer function without constant connection to the web!

Thus you, dear reader, get an update, and I get a chapter behind in my physics studying. Ah, technology.