My First Week of Medical School
Many people have asked me, “What was medical school actually like?” “What was you day-to-day schedule?”. I will attempt to describe my first day in medical school from the time I woke up to the time I fell asleep in this essay.
I woke up at my usual time of 4:30AM. I was raised on a farm and getting up early is as much a part of my life as brushing my teeth every morning and evening. I am fortunate that I actually have always had less of a sleep schedule than most of my buddies and thus, I generally awaken around 4:30AM without the need of an alarm clock. I also roll out of bed and hit the shower while my single cup of “Joe” is brewing.
Over coffee, I usually catch up with the newspaper (online) and then I headed out the door for my walk to the subway station. This walk generally took about 20-minutes and was a built-in source of exercise for me for the first couple of weeks of medical school. My coursework on the first day consisted of Introduction to the Practice of Medicine Class at 8:AM- 10AM, Psychiatry at 10AM to noon. Lunch was from 12 noon to 1PM. Afternoon was Gross Anatomy Lecture from 1PM-3PM and Gross Anatomy Lab from 3PM to 5pm.
All of our lectures were in 50-minute blocks with 10 minutes of break in between each lecture. This allowed us to get a drink, walk around and prepare for the incoming lecturer. It also allowed the media person to set up in between the lectures as our lectures were available for download and all PowerPoints were down-loadable from out seats. Most of us took notes on the Powerpoint slide sheets or just listened in class.
Our syllabi had been handed out during orientation so that we knew the objectives and content with each lecturer. We also knew which textbook readings were to be covered. My Introduction to the Practice of Medicine course had a syllabus that contained an outline of the lecture. There was no text reading for this opening lecture that included the duties of a physician, how to fill out a death certificate and how to gather and interpret vital statistics for a locale such as birth rates, death rates and rates of disease.
With all of my syllabi and text books, I would remove the covers, take the books to Kinko’s and have the bindings removed. I would then have three-holes punched and I would place these sheets in large 3-ring binders. I had a binder for each course. In the evening before each course, I would remove the syllabus sheets for that course, remove any textbook pages that I thought I might need and place them in a small 3-ring notebook along with sheets of lined notebook paper (for taking notes). This was the notebook that I brought with me to school. I would have the subject matter divided by separators so that I had all of my information with me for the day.
I would download my PowerPoint slides and place copies of these in my subject notebook when I got back home for the day. My lecture notes (or copies of note service) would also go into each subject note book. My textbook pages would go back into that textbook three-ring binder.
On my first day, I took notes and placed them in my Introduction to the Practice of Medicine binder when I arrived home at the end of the day. For psychiatry, again, the lecturer had no slides but discussed Erickson’s stages of development and Piaget. I took notes but knew that detailed explanations of these subjects were in my textbook.
For Gross Anatomy, I had the text pages with me and made notes in the margins of the material presented by the lecturer. I also made a few notes on photocopies of my Netter plates for use in our lab. During Gross Anatomy lab, I had my list of structures that I had made from scanning the dissector. I had also reviewed the relevant plates in my Netter atlas and had made photocopies of these plates. My photocopies were stapled to my list of structures.
In our first Gross anatomy lab, we studied the bones of the vertebral system and skeletal structures. We were also given instruction in how to work with the diener to keep our cadavers in good condition for the entire semester. We were also introduced to our cadavers and our tank groups (each was six people).
After lab was over, I took the subway back home (45-minutes) and walked from the subway station to my house. I then took an hour, made dinner, ate and begin to study and review the material from the first day’s lecturers. As I studied, I made notes an questions in the margins of my books, syllabi and note sheets. Since most of my notes were typed, I printed these out and placed them in my subject binders. I also studied and memorized the relevant bone structures using my bone box that was issued to me during the first day of Gross Anatomy laboratory.
My next task was to preview the notes for the next day’s subjects and do any readings/problems that had been assigned. After my previewing, my textbook pages, relevant notes and syllabi pages were placed in my daily notebook which went into my backpack. My next days courses were Biochemistry, Microbiology and Microbiology lab.
My day ended about 11 PM and I hit the bed because I knew that my next day would be starting at 4:30 AM. Since Tuesdays and Thursdays were shorter days (class started at 8AM but ended at 4PM) I actually had an extra hour on these days. We also had a Microbiology Discussion session on Tuesdays and a Biochemistry Case Discussion session on Thursdays where we would discuss clinical cases from the standpoint of these subjects. Our instructors would bring a case, present it and then we would discuss these cases in detail from the standpoint of the basic science involved.
When we started to actually dissect the cadavers, my Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays included 2-3 hours of dissection in the evening after class was done. I would get some dinner at school and then get into the dissection laboratory to study and complete dissections. The extra dissection/study moved my bedtime back to after midnight on these nights.
I also studied in the dissection laboratory and with my study group on Saturdays. We would have an early breakfast (at one of the nearby churches to help them raise funds) and then study and quiz each other until noon. We would then study and quiz each other in the Gross Anatomy lab after lunch and generally until 3 or 4pm. After that, we would do another group session in Biochemistry and Micro and then head home around 8pm.
Sunday’s were generally my day of rest. I would spend a couple hours in the evening putting together my materials for my Monday classes but most of my studies would be completed in the time that I had put in Monday through Saturday.
If this amount of study time seems extreme, it was extreme in some ways. I would not stop until I felt I had mastered the material. I also made the crucial mistake of neglecting my physical conditioning in favor of my studies when I should have incorporated my studies into my physical conditioning routine. I ended up gaining a considerable amount of weight but my grades were excellent. At this point in my life, I know that I have to strike a balance and now I am in excellent physical condition with no neglect to my academics/reading.
Medical school was all about balancing my studies with my life. I learned to multi-task and I learned how to focus on getting things mastered and completed. I also learned the value of discipline. My schedule didn’t allow much “downtime” but the “downtime” that I had was utilized to an ultimate degree.
It becomes easy to procrastinate in medical school because the days are long and the material seems voluminous. I fought procrastination by asking myself, “Why are you avoiding getting on with this task?”. Since I never had a good answer for this question, I just broke the task into smaller tasks and checked them off until they were done.
As I have said in other posts on this blog, the telly went by the wayside. I would spend a bit of time on Sunday scanning the log for shows that might be of interest. I would program my recorder for the shows of interest and watch them the next Sunday if I felt like a bit of relaxation. In most cases, my relaxation became hanging out with my classmates and the telly wasn’t much entertainment. I still tape shows that I love or documentaries that might be of interest to my students as I am teaching more these days.
Other things that tended to waste my time in medical school were phone conversations. I seldom use my telephone more than 5 minutes per week and tend to use e-mail communication more. I also pick and choose the meetings that I attend. Many times, academic committee meetings can be a total waste of time and energy and thus, I pick and choose whenever possible. If something is mandatory, the organizers generally will time the meetings around the schedules of those folks who are attending.
One of my medicine professors encouraged us to read the case reports in the New England Journal of Medicine every week from the first day of medical school. He said that we might not understand all of the aspects of each case but that this habit would prove invaluable as we moved through the curriculum. He was totally “on the money” with this one. I can’t tell you how studying and reading these cases helped me on all steps of USMLE and in residency too.
Medicine requires that you read and keep up with the journals of your discipline. I strive to read selected articles in New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of American Medical Association weekly. I also read American Surgeon and Archives of Surgery regularly along with Nature Medicine (excellent articles to be found in this journal). I keep a computer log of the articles that I have read and their sources. This keeps me current with the literature as much as possible.