Sweeter the second time around

I realized last week, with a degree of shock, that an important thing had happened during my first year of medical school: I learned something.

Not something about medicine, necessarily. I did absorb a lot of complex biomedical information during year one. But over the summer, I swear that I forgot every telltale symptom and drug interaction I’d squeezed into my skull. The Liver Flap? Isn’t that a bar on Alberta? I dragged back for year two addlepated and apprehensive.

As the first lecturers launched into recitals about the heart, random bits of information floated up, definitions of preload and pressure-volume curves that had sunk deep into my memory banks. That was reassuring, but it’s not what struck me. My surprise was being so comfortable at getting flooded with information again. I knew to listen for the diagnosis and treatment tips, even when I didn’t know what the teacher was talking about. I remembered how to make one thermos of coffee last four hours of lecture. I knew instinctively where to sit in the lecture hall — and not just because classmates had taped “AARP members only” signs on the back rows where the more seasoned (and tardy) students sit. I realized that, in the first year of medical school, I’d learned how to be a medical student. I may be completely unfamiliar with what a doctor is lecturing about at any given moment, but I am completely familiar with that feeling. The befuddlement is almost cozy.

When you’re a first-year medical student, people constantly tell you the first year is the hardest. And the hardest thing about year one is the enormous social change. Whether you come straight from college or off a job, you leave the comfort and mastery of a familiar life for a world where everyone seems to know more than you and expound it in a foreign language. There’s no preparation for fumbling through your first patient interviews, or making small talk over dead bodies, or the widespread expectation you’ll learn things you have no time to read. The most similar experience I’ve had was moving to a foreign country whose language I didn’t speak: It’s total immersion in a foreign culture. Only now, a year in, the culture isn’t so foreign. I’m comfortable in the clinic. I’m practicing my words and phrases (She’s polyuric? Maybe it’s DI.) And the smell of dead bodies outside anatomy lab — well, I still can’t find my navicular bone, but I never have to do that again. I’m back in class, comfortably befuddled and ready to forget even more than I learned last year.

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