Most medical students take a Physical Diagnosis class during their second year. This course teaches history taking and the skills necessary for performing a complete physical examination. Back in my second year of medical school, I found this course a bit intimidating in terms of what the syllabus outlined for us to accomplish in a few short weeks. Little did I realize that I had most of the tools that I needed to do well in this class, namely, an insatiable curiosity, a good ear, two good hands and total interest in my patients. The first lecturer emphasized that we would get 90% of what we needed to make a diagnosis from a good patient history. “Good” was the operative word here because as one sits and reads the “how-to” of taking a medical history, it seems that there is an abundance of information that we must obtain in the patient interview while writing a couple of notes here and there. How would I remember every detail? What happens if I forget something important? What if the patient lies to me? How am I going to figure out what a comatose patient needs? Those were just a few of my concerns in addition to looking at my opthalmoscope and trying to figure out how I would ever get the “hang” of making this forbidding tool useful in my practice. One day of the week, we would spend the afternoon in the hospital with our preceptors. My upperclassmen friends looked at the name on my paper and said that I had “hit the jackpot” with my preceptor assignment. My preceptor was a master diagnostician and an excellent teacher too. He was an endocrinologist who specialized in metabolic syndrome, a disorder that runs largely unchecked in most medically under-served populations because of poor diet and lack of physical activity. I was excited to get my practical knowledge underway with my new preceptor. My preceptor had two medical students assigned to his service at the same time. It turned out later that the other student rotating with me was my rotation partner for all of third year so we were great friends and become even closer. We met our preceptor in his office and he led us to one of the medicine floors in the hospital. He had made a short list of his patients who were willing to have us use them for our history-taking practice. I entered the room of a middle-aged gentleman who was hospitalized for jaundice. I quickly went thorough my script of questioning this very soft spoken man who lay quietly in bed. I came to find out that he was a physician who had been diagnosed with a biliary disorder that would kill him without a liver transplant in the next two weeks. He was kind and patient as I asked all of those questions about family history, social history, medications and the like. He asked me to stop by later that evening and read my historical write-up back to him. When I stopped by, he helped me organize the information and provided invaluable assistance in thinking about how to question patients. We chatted off and on for a week, until he received the word that he was being transferred for his liver transplant. I saw him three weeks later when he was ready to leave the hospital with a new liver, a new life and such joy! I practiced with my stethoscope on my own chest. It became very satisfying to lie in bed at night and listen to my own heart sounds. I listened to each sound appreciating the tones and timing. I also listened to my breath sounds, over the trachea, over the bronchi and over the lung parenchyma. I practiced listening to each heart valve and learned to appreciate the subtle differences between the sounds a the pulmonic site versus the sounds at the mitral site. I appreciated the split in my second heart sound with my respiratory cycle. If I could appreciate the subtleties of my own chest, I would be able to pick out abnormalities on my patients. That pesky opthalmoscope was the biggest hurdle that I had to cross. The first thing that I did was learn to operate the light and aperture. Since I have no visual defects, I always start with the diopter setting on 0. I also quickly learned the utility of performing this examination in a dim room as bright light makes the patient’s pupils quite constricted. A dilated pupil is easier to examine. The other useful piece of information is to start with the opthalmoscope light dim so that you don’t blind the patient while you are attempting to examine the retina. At first, I could just pick out the “red reflex”. Soon, I found a vessel and later, I learned to focus sharply on those vessels and follow them to the optic disks. In short, there is a learning curve that is most quickly overcome if you force yourself to examine the retinas of every patient that comes into your office. If you don’t practice, you won’t learn to do an adequate examination. I would wager that most physicians out in practice today, other than the ophthalmologists and neurologists, do not perform an adequate retinal exam. When it came to learning the rectal, pelvic and breast exams, we were taught by professional “patients”. These people knew the exams and used their own bodies to teach medical students. On the pelvic exam demonstrations, one of the demonstrators indicated that she was in the middle of her menstrual cycle. One of the male students in my group, left the room and never returned. I never found out how or if he learned to perform a pelvic examination but those demonstrators were excellent. They allowed us to practice and pointed out landmarks and hints that were invaluable. I found myself thinking about the type of person who is willing to become a professional demonstrator of breast, pelvic and rectal exams. While the job pays well, I would have to cross it off of my list of things to do if I needed loads of money quickly. The neurological examination is the most fun to perform and write up. I found myself collecting an odd assortment of instruments to test sensations of hot and cold (I used capped test tubes filled with tap water); vibration (tuning fork), smell (alcohol pads, nail polish remover pads); color sensation (photos); light touch (feathers of various colors) and sharp versus dull (paper clip). I had a small bell and a small stuffed kitten as objects for my patients to name. I also collected a tape measure for lesions and an assortment of cotton swabs and tongue blades for cranial nerve testing. I learned to perform my history while I was performing my physical examination. I would start with the head and ask about problems with headache, earache and vision. I would examine the eyes and nose while asking about sinus problems. I went from head to toe asking questions as I moved along. I always save invasive exams like pelvic and rectal for the end of the exam. While the patient is getting dressed, I would jot down my pertinent positive findings and spend the rest of the time chatting with the patient and explaining my findings. At this point, my preceptor would usually join me and we would discuss the treatment plans for the patient together. The most important thing that I learned in this class was the value of communicating with your patient. I probably learned more from my patients than they learned from me. I learned to listen to their words and put their words and my physical findings into a cogent clinical plan for treatment. I also learned the importance of just getting to my patient’s fears, concerns, likes and dislikes. When a physician touches a patient, there is a relationship of trust that is begun. Your patient trusts that you will use everything that you have learned in biochemistry, anatomy, pathology, pharmacology and physiology to figure out what you can do to get them healthy and keep them healthy. There is a puzzle and the pieces must be fit together for the good of the patient. I also came to appreciate the sanctity of the apprentice-mentor relationship that I had developed with my preceptor. In no other profession is that relationship so important than the attending physician/medical student. My preceptor was indeed a master and I was a very willing student. He led me through the maze of various patient encounters and kept me coming back for more. It was truly magical in many ways. Finally, I mastered that opthalmoscope during the last week of my Physical Diagnosis class. I was quite comfortable with my exam and I appreciate the art of being able to make a diagnosis. While this class seemed to be quite intimidating at first, it became one the the sentinel courses in my medical school experience. After five plus years of practice and thousands of patients later, I wonder if my preceptor knows how many thousands of patients he has touched through all of his students.
This is the last in my series about surgical clerkship. In this essay, I thought I would address some of the things that can go wrong and present some strategies to fix them or do “damage control”.
Misunderstandings or Miscommunication – Communication in medicine – any specialty- is a key component. Learning to listen carefully to your patients, your colleagues and your teachers is of paramount importance. Sometimes anxiety or time prevents you from actually “hearing” the message. This happens to everyone and especially to people who are trying to juggle several tasks at the same time. If you make a mistake, own up to it, apologize and move on. Don’t internalize and don’t personalize anything on any clinical rotation. It is very easy to miscommunicate when you are under pressure and in unfamiliar territory. When you find that you have misunderstood something or that someone has misunderstood you, acknowledge the mistake and keep moving forward. Forgive yourself, forgive others and move on as misunderstandings/mis-communications are part of being human.
Not telling the Truth – This goes along with miscommunication and mistakes. Don’t lie about anything. If you didn’t check something, acknowledge your mistake and let it go. Make a note to yourself not to repeat the mistake and leave it at that. Many times, especially when you are tired, you will forget something. Again, make notes to yourself if you forget something or did not do something but don’t lie about anything that you did or did not accomplish. Your ”word” in medicine is golden and your career, your patients’ lives and you colleagues trust all depend on your word and its truthfulness.
Grave errors – I remember an incident when I was an intern. A fourth-year medical student was attempting to re-wire a central line and made a fatal error that caused the death of a patient. In the defense of the fourth-year student, he/she was not supervised and wasn’t familiar with central line rewiring. In defense of the resident on whose service this student was rotating, he/she did not know that the student had not performed the procedure unsupervised. In this case, the student and resident was reprimanded but both owned up to this grave error. The worst problem is that this student will carry this incident for the rest of his/her life.
In short, never ever perform a task or procedure unsupervised unless you are sure of what you are doing. In any procedure, especially the invasive ones, you should be able to explain the procedure to the person who is supervising you along with any complications that can arise and how you will handle them. When you are learning procedures, learn them from preparation, performance, complications and management of complications. The learning curve for things like central lines is usually 10 supervised before you do the procedure unsupervised.
Personality Conflicts – There will be people on your team (nursing personnel, fellow students, interns, attending physicians) that you will not get along with. In my opinion, personality conflicts have no role in medicine as they are counterproductive to good patient care. When I have encountered a personality conflict, I will defer my feelings as long as the care of my patient is not compromised. In short, my business and my job is to be able to work with each member of the team as professionally as possible for the benefit of the patient. As I have said in other essays, the clock ticks and you will not be around this person for the rest of your life. Be sure that you don’t burn any bridges behind you.
Another rule of mine is that I never discuss my colleagues with anyone except the person that I am having the conflict with. I don’t have time for gossip and I never allow negative comments about my colleagues from nursing or other people. One of my jobs as I have moved through residency has been to evaluate others. In these evaluations, I have readily admitted when I have a personality conflict and tried not to allow this to interfere with my evaluation. If I place something negative on an evaluation, I always cite the reason and what I believe the person can do to improve the situation. I also do not place negative information on an evaluation unless I have warned the person and asked them to correct the behavior which is the object of an evaluation in the first place. In short, check your ego at the door when it comes to patient care.
Time Management – There are 24-hours in a day and you do need rest at some point. Don’t try to ignore your body’s signals when you are tired. Manage your time so that you get some rest (it’s never going to be enough) and take care of your physical needs (eating, hydration). When you start a new rotation, you won’t be as efficient as when you end the rotation because you don’t know the procedures. Pay close attention to your interns and residents and ask for help. Never be too proud or too afraid to admit when you are overwhelmed. Also, avoid drugs to “keep you going” as these often bring on personality changes that can cause problems.
Most chief residents and interns will allow you to rest when there is nothing of educational value going on. If you are told to leave (go home), do what you are told to do. Don’t hang around the hospital but leave. If you are not tired, go to the library and study or go home and study but don’t hang around. You won’t get too many opportunities to “leave early” on most surgery rotations. If something is going on that you want to observe, ask your intern or resident before you go off and observe. Don’t ever leave one service to “hang out” with another without permission from your intern/resident and the agreement of the intern/resident of the service that you are “hanging out” with.
Helping Your Fellow Students – If your are efficient at getting your work done, help your fellow students if they need it. Your fellow students are your colleagues and sometimes they just need a hand at some small chore. If you are able to lend this hand, do so. Share information with your fellow students if you have something that is useful to the team. Your fellow students are not your competition at this point. Try to do what you can for the good of everyone. If someone has an emergency, offer to switch their call (let your chief resident know) and do so if you can. You never know when you might need the favor returned.
If one of your fellow students mistakenly keeps trying to manage your patients, show off to the residents and attendings, speak to this person about their behavior. If they continue in this aggressive behavior, let the intern/resident know what is going on. I can tell you from experience that quite often, the chief resident is aware of what is happening and will deal with the problem. Your job on any clerkship is to learn as much as you can. If someone, fellow student or resident, is interfering with this process, the clerkship manager/dean should be made aware of the situation. Ask for a meeting and come prepared with examples of how your education is being compromised. Offer solutions to the problem too. As I said above, personality conflicts have no role in medicine but nothing should interfere with your learning. Make sure that you outline that problem and depersonalize it before you present it. Most of the time, learning interference problems can be solved by good and honest communication as opposed to “running to the clerkship manager/dean”. Reserve going outside the team for things that you cannot solve within the team.
Beware of the fellow student who is “going into surgery” and feels the need to scrub any cases that he/she deems interesting. Do the cases that are assigned to you and don’t let your fellow students take your cases. If this is happening on a regular basis, that is, you have scrubbed 15 hernias and nothing else while your colleagues are getting all of the interesting cases, check with your chief resident. On the other hand, if you are just scrubbing the “easier cases” so that your inpatient list is short, your grade may suffer. Don’t be afraid to tackle a complex patient and a complex case. You will be surprised at how much you can learn by digging in and taking on the assignment.
Attitude – I have said that attitude is everything in clinical medicine. Approach each rotation with the attitude that you will master what you need. You don’t have to “love” everything that you are doing but you do need to be able to give your patients your best work regardless of whether or not you love the rotation or anticipate entering the specialty.
Ask for feedback early and often. No one was born knowing how to perform on a rotation. A five-minute “how am I doing conference” with your intern and resident is not a bad idea early in the rotation. Listen to what they have to say and make notes of what you need to improve. Practice your skills and add to them. Keep a running list of procedures that you have done complete with the names of patients, date of procedure and supervising physician.
Problems in the OR - Don’t get into a ”pissing match” with any of the Operating Room personnel. If a scrub person tells you that you are contaminated, step away from the field and take care of it with a “thanks for pointing this out” attitude. I can tell you from personal experience that some OR personnel will try to ”get to you” because you are male, female, human, and other characteristics. Let this stuff go as long as they are not interfering with your knowledge. As an assigned medical student, you have a role in every case that you scrub. You are not to be ”pushed out of the way” by anyone. If this happens, discuss it with your attending or chief resident after the case but don’t get into a shoving match during a case. This rotation is part of your medical school education and you are paying good money for this experience. Don’t allow anyone to compromise your learning experience.
If you feel “faint” in the OR, step back from the table. You can just say, “I need step back” and everyone knows what is happening. The circulator will usually stick a stool under your before you fall. It also goes without saying that you should never go into a case with a full bladder or an empty stomach. Keep some kind of a snack in your coat pocket and keep hydrated too. If you are feeling ill, don’t scrub especially if you have a fever. Explain the situation to your resident/attending and don’t scrub the case. If you are “sick” for every case, your grade may suffer but on at least one occasion, students DO get sick and should not be in the OR.
Remember that too much caffeine will make your hands shake. I have found from experience that caffeine doesn’t alleviate fatigue and doesn’t make you more alert if you are exhausted. Things that help me fight fatigue are rest, hydration, good physical conditioning and fresh air. A cup or two of coffee/tea is not going to hurt you but downing cases of cola or pots of coffee/tea will not help you and may compromise your health, not to mention the diuretic effect of caffeine. Use this drug with caution and avoid overuse.
Grades – You should know ahead of time, how your grade is going to be calculated for any rotation. Be sure that you are not neglecting the projects and performance objectives of your rotation. Go back and look at your clerkship objectives weekly to be sure that you are accomplishing what you need to accomplish. If you have been assigned to a Cardiothoracic team, be sure that you are not neglecting your reading when it comes to hepatobiliary conditions. Your shelf exam is going to cover all aspects of general surgery, trauma, critical care, orthopedics and cardiothoracic surgery. Be sure that you neglect nothing.
Be sure that you continue to hone your diagnostic skills. Even if you are going into primary care, you need to be thoroughly familiar with the diagnosis and treatment of the acute abdomen. In short, you need to be totally familiar with the instances where you need to “consult” surgery. Every case of abdominal pain does not require a surgical consult and you will quickly lose the respect of your surgical colleagues if you consult them before you have done a complete work-up. Be sure that you know why and what you need from any consultant and are not using them to do your work.
Physical Limitations - If you have physical limitations that do not permit you to scrub the longer cases, the let you chief resident know ahead of time. If you have a chronic condition such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy or other physical limitations, these should have been discussed with your clerkship preceptors and the residents should have been made aware of your condition. These should not be done in front of the rest of the team but you should make sure that the people who need to be aware of your condition are aware. This is especially true if you are pregnant and are having complications. If you become pregnant during your surgical rotation, be sure that your preceptors knows what is happening and is made aware of any problems that encounter. Again, this rotation should not place you (or your/your unborn child’s health) in jeopardy. I have had medical students who were physically challenged who contributed more to the success of my surgical team than some students who didn’t have these limitations. In these cases, I didn’t run the stairs with the team or make that person scrub the ten-hour cases without a break. In the end, it all evens out.
Remember that your chief resident and attending physician preceptor are not your enemies. You need to have a good working relationship with them and good communication with them. You also need to be proactive about your learning by keeping up with your reading and adding to your skills whenever possible. General Surgery often moves very quickly and decisions must be made with incomplete data gathering. If you don’t understand how a decision was reached, ask the resident to go through this with you.
Have the attitude that you are going to be a valued team player because you are. You are not the “scut person” and you are not on a team to be the “butt of jokes” by your residents or fellow students. Pitch in and refuse to be alienated by things like occasional “locker room humor”. Don’t personalize anything and learn from your mistakes.
This is the second of a three-part series to help you get the most out of your third-year surgical clerkship. Since this is one of the most important required clerkships, I thought I would spend some time on this one. The subject matter of this essay will be scrubbing and assisting in the OR along with handling some of the “pimp” questions that frequently come during the cases.
Your first tour at the scrub sink need not be intimidating as long as you keep a couple of things in mind. First, you need to be dressed properly. By proper dress, I mean clean hospital scrubs with no T-shirt sleeves below the level of the scrub sleeve. You need to have your hair completely covered (no bangs sticking out ladies) by scrub cap or “shower-type” cap. These caps should be clean and ideally, disposable. You need to have eye protection that covers all around. The goggle-type glasses are the best but you can pick up the disposable “Angel Frames” which are better than nothing at all. Blood spatters in the eyes are no laughing matter and you need to be protected. After your eye protection is in place, you must don a mask that completely covers your mouth and nose. If you have a beard or large bushy mustache, you can wear one of the hooded type devices that serve as both cap and mask. Finally, you need to don shoe covers that completely cover your shoes including the laces. Blood and other fluids often drip down onto your shoes. If you have shoes without laces, so much the better. I have shoes that I do not wear outside the OR that I cover with two pairs of shoe covers. When I am done with the case, I dispose of the outer cover and keep the inner cover for the recovery room.
You need to put on your hat and shoe covers before you enter the operating suite. These are usually at the door or near the door of the locker room and within easy reach. You need to be sure that your scrubs are clean before you leave the locker area (no blood or coffee). At the scrub sink, you need to don your mask and eye shields. Make sure that your mask is under the rim of your eye shield and tight. If moisture gets through, your eye shields will fog during the case and you won’t be able to see. Place a small piece of tape if you can’t crimp the mask for a custom fit. (Some people will tie a face shield-type mask upside down on their forehead to prevent fogging. This works well and you don’t need the eye shields if you do this. Another advantage of the upside-down face shield is that the rolled up mask part acts like a wick if you sweat or are doing a peds case in a very warm room. Before you begin to scrub, go into the operating suite, introduce yourself to both the circulator and scrubbed personnel and write your name on the board and your level (MS-III). Also, if you are wearing a pager, place this on the desk with a pen/small note pad clipped to it. You can’t answer your pages when you are scrubbed in a case. Obtain your gloves and gown and place them on the table where the circulator can open them and hand off to the scrubbed assistant. Be sure to obtain both pairs because you want to be double gloved. Be sure you have chosen the correct size (have one of the nurses/techs size you if you don’t know). I wear size 7.5 gloves (big hands) I place my 8 undergloves next to my skin and put size 7.5 on top. Gloves that are too tight will be miserable on a long case. Gloves that are too loose do not permit good tactile skills such as suturing.
Once your mask, hat and eye protection are in place, you should be standing in front of the scrub sink. There are two types of soap solutions available (the waterless and water requiring). If you use the waterless scrub, make sure that you have done at least one water-based scrub before you use this material. On vascular cases, I never use the waterless scrub alone and usually do a full scrub between cases. If a graft gets infected, the patient usually dies from that infection. I take no chances and always err on the side of caution. If you are allergic to iodine (and I am allergic to iodine) don’t use the povidine solution for scrubbing. You should have gone through a “scrub class” before you actually scrub but the short version is here.
Take the nail cleaner and scrub brush from its packet. Turn on the water with your foot (may be automatic) and wet your hands and arms starting with the hands and going up to the elbows. Be careful not to touch the faucet. Use the nail cleaner to clean under each nail and dispose of it. Scrub each surface of each finger with plenty of soap and the brush. Divide your arms into four quadrants and clean them using 25 strokes for each finger surface, the nails of each hand, the surface up to the elbow. Once you have scrubbed an area, don’t re scrub. Toss the brush into the trash can and rinse starting with the hands and letting the water drip at the elbows. Keep your hands up at all times. If you accidentally touch the faucet, start over with the scrub.
You will drip water but hold your hands up and open the door of the operating room with your rear end. The scrubbed person will give you a sterile towel. Allow them to drape this towel over your wet hands. Grasp the towel at one end with one hand and dry from hand up to elbow. Take the other end and do the same. Drop the towel across the laundry hamper or where you are told to drop it. You hands should be dry and continuously held up. The scrub person will hand you a gown or drape a gown over your shoulders (stand still and close enough) pulling up the sleeves. The circulator will tie the gown. The scrubbed assistant will place your under glove on your right hand (left first at Mayo) and then you use your index and long finger to stretch the second glove so that you can place it on your second hand. This is repeated for you outer glove.
You then “spin” and tie the outside ties of your gown. At this point, if you are not doing anything, cross your arms and stand out of the way. The resident and attending surgeon will be draping the patient and will tell you where to stand and what to do. Keep your arms folded and once you are in place, keep your hands “in the case” meaning let them rest on the OR table in complete view of the scrubbed assistant. When the surgeon gives you a retractor, hold it as instructed and try not to move. Keep your mind on the case, step by step (you should review the procedure before entering the OR). The surgeon may ask you to do a couple of ties or throw some sutures. Be sure that you are totally familiar with whatever you are asked to do. If it’s your first time, speak up and someone will talk you through. Try to close the skin at the end of the case. At this point, you and the resident can share this duty and it’s a good time to learn.
If you are driving camera on an laparoscopic case, try to keep the instruments in the center of the visual field. Believe it or not, you have the most important job on the case. Good camera drivers usually get excellent evaluations from the residents and attendings so learn this important skill. In the event of an emergency and you lose gas pressure, remove the camera as quickly as possible. The light on the end of the camera can cause a very serious burn so you need to be sure that you don’t touch any tissue with the light and that you remove the camera efficiently if told to do so. Keep your eyes in the case and listen to instructions. If you make a mistake, correct it but don’t take anything personally. When a case isn’t going well, surgeons can get frustrated. It isn’t personal and don’t let it throw you.
At the end of the case, help the anesthesiologist, resident and technician move the patient to the stretcher and push the stretcher to the recovery room. Again, just do what you are told if you don’t know. Step up and volunteer your assistance if needed. Watch tubes and IV lines on transfer and remember that the anesthesiologist directs the move because he/she is in charge of the airway. Be sure to thank the OR scrub staff when you leave the OR for the recovery room. It’s just common courtesy. Once in the recovery room, be ready to write the ”Brief Op Note”. You can get all of the components from the anesthesiologist and the OR nurse. At the beginning of your rotation memorize the components of the Brief Op Note and be efficient at getting this note written. Again, ask to do this and ask the resident to help you if you can’t find something. Don’t leave this note incomplete. When I am dictating the case, I will use this note in my dictations so listen to the resident’s dictation (I dictate my cases in the RR at the end of each case) if nothing else.
Every patient that you assist on that is coming to your service will be your patient. If you have seen the case, you know what the incision looked like at the close of the case and you know what went on during the case. Keep these things in mind as you follow your patient. Be sure to read the anesthesia notes on your patient and ask questions if you don’t understand something. These notes can be invaluable in terms of fluid management of your patient post-op.
Answering those “pimp” questions. Most questions asked during a case will be directly related to the pathology of the patient or the anatomy of the region that involves the pathology. Be sure that you have reviewed these things before scrubbing the case. It’s a good idea to review the anatomy of the biliary system, the GI system and the chest before you start your rotation. Be sure to read and review common emergency cases such as appendicitis, acute abdomen and vascular anatomy. After that, read about the types of patients that you will be seeing on your service. Finally, cover trauma (unless you are on trauma service). Again, the Lawrence text is great for reading and total mastery of this book can take you a long way toward doing well on your shelf exam.
You also need to be sure that you skills are adequate. Practice with a knot-tying board until you can tie a secure two-handed knot without thinking about it. Be sure to bone up on your fluid and electrolyte information as pimp questions will frequently come for this subject matter. Stick close to your resident and don’t whine. If you are tired, your intern and resident is more tired. There will be times where you are just exhausted. The first thing you should grab is a bottle of water (dehydration makes exhaustion worse). Stay away from loads of caffeine and sugar and learn to “cat-nap”. Be upbeat and remember that no matter how bad the rotation, the clock is ticking and it will be over soon. For most people, this is their only brush with surgery and the most important thing to take away from the rotation is a solid knowledge of when to consult a surgeon. Next essay, when things go wrong and how to do “damage control”.
I thought I would take this opportunity to spend some time listing some helpful hints to moving through your surgical clerkship seamlessly. Surgery is one the the third-year “required” clerkships during medical school. It doesn’t matter if you are interested in surgery or not, you still need to master this important portion of your medical school training. Many student look at surgery as something to be dreaded but this approach will not serve you well in surgery (or any class or clerkship). It is most useful to go into this clerkship with an open mind and a willingness to learn and master what you need from this required clerkship to become an excellent physician.
As a third-year surgical student, you will be required to keep honing and using your Physical Diagnosis skills. Your acumen with the abdominal history and physical exam will be sharpened. In addition, you can pick up some valuable procedures and skills that will serve you well on any rotation regardless of specialty such as scrubbing and interaction with a sterile field, central venous access, suturing and simple skin closure. As a third-year surgical student, you ARE part of the team and you can either “carry your weight” or “drop the ball” but 95% of what you get out of this and any clinical rotation will be directly related to your attitude. In short, open your mind (and your ears) so that you get the most for your experience and money.
Surgical patients may present at any time of the day and from various sources such as the clinic, the emergency department or from your preceptor’s private office. In general, you will be assigned to a team (trauma, general surgical, surgical specialty) where you can expect patients from the above sources. You will be expected to take overnight “call” along with the interns and residents since many surgical patients will present in the middle of the night with emergencies. Your surgical clerkship is a very nice opportunity to interact with the “late-shift” personnel in various departments such as radiology, lab and nursing so that you can learn who to see when you need to get something done or when you need information.
The intern (PGY-1) is your first point person. Try to learn the scope of their role on the surgical team and how you can assist this person. The intern will usually be the busiest person but remember, that regardless of specialty, in two years, you will be in their position. Watch how the intern performs their job and learn how to function as an intern. During your fourth year “acting” internships or (AIs), you will want to have mastered time management and multi-tasking. It is great to have a good relationship with your intern and learn as much as possible and become as helpful as possible.
Being helpful does not mean that you become the person to “go fetch” coffee, radiographs and laundry but it does mean that you know more about your assigned patients than anyone on the team. You will pick up three to four patients on each rotation (more if you are efficient) that you will follow through their hospital course. It is your responsibility to follow-up on all orders, consults, labs and studies on your patient. The intern on your service will be covering every patient on the service so the more closely you can work with your intern the better. This means reading in your surgical text about your patients’ pathology and the surgical treatment of that pathology. This means reviewing and following up on every order, medication, dressing change and complication.
Typically, you will enter the hospital early in the morning to pre-round. In some cases, pre-rounding means heading over to a computer to gather any laboratory work, checking in with the overnight (post-call team) and reading any nurses notes/checking with the nurses who have been on duty overnight. Armed with this information, you should quickly check the previous 24 hours of vitals, intake and output. Finally (if this is allowed), you should do a quick (no more than 5-10-minute) focused physical exam on your patient. Armed with this information you can prepare your AM presentation which should make up the bulk of your AM progress note. If you encounter any problems, discuss these with your intern and be prepared to present this patient to the AM rounding team.
On AM rounds, the chief (or most senior resident) will listen to your report presentation. If you are not ready, the intern will present the patient but you should step up and have your presentation ready. Other good things to do will be to be at the bedside with things like extra bandages, scissors and tape if needed for your patient. I learned very early, how to “peek” under a dressing without removing it. In general, dressings may be removed at 48 hours but never remove a dressing unless you have cleared it with your intern. You can peek and examine the wound to figure out if it is intact. Also, be sure to note any dressing drainage (dry or fresh) and note if nursing has been reinforcing the dressing overnight (or since surgery). If you are on the vascular service, one of your tasks will be to “take down” your patient’s dressing so that the team may examine the wounds on rounds. You may be asked to replace the dressing (great skill to learn) by your resident. Get help from the intern (or nursing) if you have difficulty or questions with this.
If you have read about your patients’ pathology and surgical treatment, you should know (or learn) what complications to look for and how to monitor your patient. For example, you should know what to do if your patient develops a post-op fever at 8 hours, 24 hours, 36 hours or 72 hours. You should have a differential of things to check and monitor. You should know what to do if your patient has an extreme amount of pain that is unrelieved by their current analgesic regimen. You should know how to monitor electrolytes and when to replace them. You should keep your intern informed of the results of all consultants and any studies that have been ordered. In short, you micromanage the patient and you keep on top of things.
Another wonderful experience of your surgical clerkship is assisting in the operating room. I am going to devote an entire essay to this very important task. You will be performing tasks such as retracting tissue, driving camera (on laparoscopic cases) and closing skin. Do not underestimate the importance of these duties and do not underestimate the importance of thoroughly mastering the surgical anatomy of the cases that you scrub. Here again, is a great opportunity for you to show what you know and hone what you learned in Gross Anatomy and physiology. During many of your cases, you are going to be questioned by the senior resident/attending surgeon about the anatomy, physiology or procedure on which you are assisting. I will give you some tips to make you shine and guide you through this process.
Textbooks for your surgical clerkship: The big “three” texts for General Surgery are Greenfield’s, Sabiston’s and Schwartz. You need not purchase these texts (even if you are going into surgery) as they are readily available in your library (medical school or hospital) for research and consultation for presentations and projects. My favorite clerkship text is the Lawrence text for both General Surgery and the text for the Surgical Specialties. This book (or one like it) should constitute the bulk of your reading on this clerkship. In addition, you may want to invest in a smaller “pocket-type” book such as Surgical Recall that you can keep in your pocket for downtime during cases. Other good books in addition to your main clerkship text (Lawrence or something else) are NMS Surgery and NMS Surgery Casebook which contain excellent and compact information.
With Lawrence, NMS and the NMS Casebook, I cut the bindings off [FedEx/Kinko’s] and placed these in binders. I could then take pages with me and keep up with my reading between cases. The pages were held together by a ring and would fit in my jacket pocket or back pocket of my scrubs. I always had something to read with me be it Surgical Recall or my pages. This was the easiest way to keep reading and prepare for your surgical shelf exam. Surgical Recall was great for pointing out the surgical anatomy, surgical instrumentation and other answers to “pimp” questions for a particular procedure or pathology.
In my next essay, I will review scrubbing and assisting in the OR. In addition, I will comment on being a great third-year on call and keeping yourself “in the game” when you are exhausted and ready to “give up”. In my last essay on the Surgical Clerkship, I will point out some strategies for when things go wrong and how to prevent getting into situations where things can go wrong.
I thought I would write a short essay about my experience with Gross Anatomy class when I was in medical school. This class can cause some angst and turmoil for some freshman medical students because it generally requires the greatest adjustment in terms of study skills and habits.
First of all, Gross Anatomy does not require any great feats of intellectual insight. The material to be mastered takes diligent and systematic study. In short, there is NO substitute for just grinding through the process and taking the time to organize the material for study. At my school, Gross Anatomy also included Embryology which, made Gross Anatomy (GA) far easier to organize in my opinion.
During orientation, we were given a huge syllabus complete with objectives, lecture schedule and lab schedule arranged by topic. We were also given an exam schedule which allowed us to know exactly how much material each exam would cover and when the exams would be given. The breakdown was along the lines of Exam 1 – Extremities and Back Muscles, Exam 2- Thorax, Abdomen and Pelvis, Exam 3 – Head and Neck. This division made sense because dissection and study of the Back Muscles and Extremities requires far less manual precision than dissection of Head and Neck Structures. By the time we reached study of Head and Neck, we were old “pros” at dissection and finding structures.
My best tools for study of Back Muscles and Extremities were my embryology book and one of the skeletons. Our anatomy department had loads of bones and skeletons everywhere in the gross lab. My first approach was to sit down with the syllabus and look over what would be covered in lab and lecture. My next approach was to skim the material in the syllabus looking carefully at the objectives. This usually took less than 15 minutes tops and I was on to the reading making notes in the margins of the text that corresponded to material that was mentioned in the objectives.
My GA textbook was Moore’s Clinical Anatomy for Medical students. I had the binding removed from this book so that I could place the reading pages in a three ring binder. I always had something readily available for reading. My next step was to photocopy or scan the Netter plates that corresponded to the lecture that we would be covering. I would note with a pink highlighter, any structures that were mentioned in the syllabus. That was my prep for each lecture. After hearing the lecture, I would study my notes (or the noteservice notes) and do the same prep for the next lecture.
In prep for lab, I would take out my dissector and make a check sheet of every structure that were expected to observe in lab. I would organize them according to superficial, deep, nerve supply and blood supply. When it came to the muscles, I would list every origin and insertion and action on a sheet with a check list. Before I began dissection, I would visualize them on a skeleton and visualize the actions. I learned the nerve and blood supply at this point too. For example, let’s say that I was looking at the muscles of the back. My first task was to organize them into extrinsic back muscles (associated with the movement of limbs) and intrinsic back muscles (associated with movement of the spine). I would then organize them into superficial and deep layers.
My coverage of the anatomy of the back would have started with organizing the anatomy into surface anatomy (my fiance was a willing model for this stuff), bony anatomy (learning all of the vertebral bones), spinal cord anatomy and then the back muscles. Associated with all of these lectures were embryology lectures on development of the muscles, bones and nerves. But back to the my organization scheme. The embryology lectures took place before dissection so that we had that background before moving into the lab.
Let’s say that today’s lecture included the muscles of the back. I would have my Netter plates (with annotations) and my key words from the objectives in my folder for that lecture (the material that I had prepared the evening before). I would listen to the lecture taking notes as I needed them and adding notes to my plates or on paper. We would then head off to the lab where I would look at the skeleton and trace out every origin (medial attachement) and insertion (lateral attachement) for each of the back muscles. Lets look at the Latissimus dorsi for a specific example. The medial attachement is the spinous processes of the six most inferior thoracic vertebrae and the lumbar vertebrae, inferiorly: the iliac crest and the thoracolumbar fascia and the inferior 3 to 4 ribs. This muscle inserts on the floor of the intertubercular groove of the humerus. By locating the origins and insertions of a muscle, I would be able to picture the action of that muscle as it contracts. In the case of the latissimus dorsi, I knew for sure that this muscle was not an intrinsic back muscle but functioned primarily on the humerus (an arm bone).
I would also learn the blood and nerve supply as I studied the skeleton. The nerve supply is the Thoracodorsal nerve which can be found heading through the axilla and to this muscle. One of my instructors like to say that the extrinsic back muscles “crawled out onto the back and took their blood and nerve supply with them”. This statement easily explains why the thoracodorsal artery is a distal branch of the axillary artery and that I could trace the small branches on the anterior surface of the latissimus dorsi muscle back to the distal part of the axillary artery which is a continuation of the subclavian artery. The nerve system is the same as the thoracodorsal nerve is a branch off the posterior cord of the bracheal plexus which travels to the LD muscle that is located on the posterior, inferior portion of the superfical back. In short, by organizing the material before heading into the dissection lab, I knew where to look for nerves and vessels; the actions of the muscle and bony landmarks all at the same time.
My GA class also required that we study radiographs, CTs and MRIs in addition to our dissection. I studied the available materials along with my dissections. When I came to the dissection lab, I had a checklist of all of the materials that I wanted to review and master. I can tell you that I was in the dissection lab at least 10 hours per week outside of the dissection lab times. On the weekends, I would review the week’s materials which usually took three or so hours. This study was done with my study group. I also looked at every cadaver in the lab weekly in addition to my own. We kept a running list of excellent dissections (more likely to be tested) at different tanks. We always asked permission before entering another group”s tank.
Another thing my study group did was ask one of the instructors (usually the course director) to spend 30 minutes quizzing us a week before the lab practical. He was totally willing to work with a five-student group. We asked him to be picky and brutal. Usually these sessions made us go back and work a bit more on our identification of structures. Our instructor was very good about telling us how to identify structures on a lab practical. He always liked to show us great landmarks.
The most important aspect of GA study (any course study) in medical school, is not to get behind. If you miss something (illness) you need to go immediately to where the class in and catch up on the weekend. Some students get behind and attempt to catch up and never get there. Again, catch up on weekends (they don’t lecture on Saturdays and Sundays). Also, don’t underestimate how much your classmates can be great resources for you. I never found a classmate who wasn’t willing to review structures with me in the lab. The biggest gunner gets an extra boost by helping classmates who are struggling. Everytime I reviewed something, I learned it that much better.
Some caveats: You cannot organize the material for your classmates. Each person has to find their own system and each person has to learn the material for themselves. Working with a study group helps to reinforce the material but each person is responsible for their own learning. Don’t even try to work with a group until you have done a thorough mastery of the material for yourself. If you are isolated, you lose out on the great reinforcement so don’t isolate yourself. If you have a family and other outside obligations, schedule some study group time even if it is minimal. Medicine is not a solo activity and you will have to rely on your colleagues when you are in practice. Medical school is good practice for learning to work as a group.
Well, the above is the essence of my system for GA and embrylogy. I can tell you that I spent plenty of time in the Gross lab and working on GA. It was interesting and it helped me appreciate my classmates even more. We all worked together and we all learned together. GA is not a course that you can sit down, memorize and master in a vacuum. You need feedback and your instructors/classmates are great resources. While there is much to learn and master, it’s not all rote memorization. My classmates that were great rote memorizers did fine on the tests but crashed on USMLE Step I in most cases. The understanders and intergrator (like me) did equally well on the exams and on USMLE Step I. It takes both.
I would also say that GA is not a course to be feared but a course to be mastered. A full 75% of my class failed the first GA lecture exam but only about 2 people failed the course itself. In most schools, you are not penalized for getting off to a slow start as long as you figure out what you need to do to get your information mastered. For me, GA was daily study, preparation and mastery. I also forged a great relationship with the GA instruction staff (I was the class rep for this course) so that we all could do our best. The instructors were not there to “fail” us but to help us master this neat course. In the end, it worked out fine.