646 germs, and counting

I’m living with a 30-foot tapeworm, five flavors of hepatitis and an untreatable, brain-eating amoeba that loves warm water inside of me. They’re not infecting me, thank goodness (though you can harbor one of those worms without knowing it). Instead, they’re among the hundreds of little nasties that took up residence in my memory.

The first year medical students learned 646 microorganisms, to be precise.

In one, eight-week class.

It’s hard to fathom the ocean of information I treaded the past nine months. I studied so much that the new facts squeezed out the old, from the minutiae of anatomy I learned last fall to my classmates’ names. Occasionally, our teachers stop to marvel at how ridiculously fast they present information; one noted we spent 10 days learning how the immune system works, easily the topic of a year-long graduate course.

Our last class of the year was Biological Basis of Disease, nicknamed “Bugs and Drugs.” Over 43 days of lecture we had to learn how germs work, how the body fights germs and which drugs can help. The last day, a lecturer noted that we’d been asked to learn 646 germs. We didn’t have to know them all for the test, he reassured. Just the important ones. Which ones are important? Whichever ones your patients turn up with, of course.

The 646 stuck in my head. Not that I remember all 646 germs. I didn’t when we took our final on June 17,  I sure won’t when I graduate in three years. That’s what reference books are for. No, the number stuck in my head as a way to measure the workload med students shoulder. So I did a little more counting. Here is what we were asked to absorb in our final class, one class out of the five in one year out of the four it takes to earn an M.D. degree.

BBOD By the Numbers

  • Days of lecture: 43 (4/14 to 6/17)
  • 8.5 x 11-inch pages of course handouts: 1,222
  • Powerpoint slides shown: 6,499
  • Textbooks: 7 — 4 required plus 3 recommended. Nobody reads them all. I only cracked one. The “required” textbooks alone sum to 3,440 pages, 16.8 pounds and a $302.78 bill on Amazon. Add in the recommended reading and that balloons to 5,342 pages, 27.8 pounds and $547.34.
  • Flash cards: 198, from Acinetobacter baumannii http://cmr.asm.org/cgi/content/full/21/3/538 (a highly drug-resistant bacterium that plagues soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan) to Yersinia pestis http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/plague/ (the black plague, once dreaded, now easily treated with common antibiotics).
  • Online submissions: 12
  • Scantron questions answered: 384, over ten hours of testing, plus three short answers.
  • Kegs of beer consumed at class after-test party: 2

Now we’re on a summer break. I’m forgetting germs and remembering friends’ names. I’m sleeping until 9 a.m. I read something for fun the other day. I went to the gym. I don’t go back to class until August 29. That’s 72 days off from school.

Not that I’m counting.