Surviving my first semester in med school

I’ve survived my first semester in med school, and I think that’s a good word to describe it. Survival. I thought I was prepared for the onslaught of information and work and examinations. I worked in media for over ten years, so I assumed I was pretty robust. And I am. But medicine is a different beast. I made loads of mistakes, and learnt a lot along the way so if you want to save yourself a lot of time and heartache, stick with me, and hopefully you’ll learn from my mishaps.

You can’t learn everything

I was warned about this, but it never really sunk in. I didn’t really appreciate the sheer volume of work until I actually started. Massive amounts of information and knowledge are thrown at you, and you panic, trying to memorise it all. Nope. Not good. After a while, I figured out that understanding the big picture, and how to apply it clinically was the best way to go for me.

 Medicine is a different language

I didn’t have a science background coming into this, so I was completely on the backfoot from day one. Nearly everyone else had the advantage of being about to pronounce and understand big long words made up of latin names for body parts and problems. I’m bilingual, but after the last few months, I now kind feel like I have a third language. The language of medicine.

Find your people

You need to find people who will help you out, make you laugh, look after you, point out that you’re being an idiot, help explain concepts to you, and you need to be able to do some of these things for them as well. I’d be lost without my little gang. We’re a motley crew from all over Ireland, Canada and America and we probably drive each other nuts but I wouldn’t have made it through that first semester without them. They understand the pain, the fears, the pressures and also the laughs and fun we’ve had in class and with our tutors. I can really see why people now say the friends you make it med school will be your friends for life. We were all on the island together, after all, and had to support each other in finding our way through.

Find your study method

Everyone has a different way of doing it, and depending on the content or the time you have, your methods may change, but trust me… what got you through your undergrad, reading and re-reading, or cramming ain’t going to cut it in med school. It took me about four months to figure out that consistently testing myself using flashcards was the way to go for me. It means my first semester exams probably didn’t go as well as they could have… but at least now I know how to do it. If you only take one bit of advice from me… it’s this. Don’t waste this time not studying, or doing it the wrong way. It will come back to bite you. Little and often, testing your recall, is the way to go. 

Cramming doesn’t work

To reiterate, you will not even make it to your second semester if you think you can cram your way through. You will be called out long beforehand at anatomy mini-tests… you can’t learn off pharmacology, the brachial plexus and how to palpate a liver to name but a few things over a weekend. Little and often, is the key. It took me too long time to figure this out. If you take just one thing from this piece, let it be this.

You’re not going to be the smart kid anymore

In general, if you get into med school, you probably did ok in school. Unfortunately for you and your ego, you’re now going to be in a class where everyone is pretty good with the books. Unless you’re in a very small minority, will lose your status of top dog. You’ll have to swallow your pride and ask for help. The only person you should be competing with is yourself. I’m nowhere near the top of my class but that’s ok. It might take me longer to get there than others, as I’ve had to learn everything from scratch. I’ve accepted that and now I look back with pride about how far I’ve already come.

Schedule some fun

I found myself saying “I’ll do that when I have time,” or “That’ll be a nice treat after I finish studying,” and guess what? The fun stuff never happened. By Christmas, I realised that there will never be enough study done and that a little bit of fun is needed along the way. Despite knowing what I know about exercise psychology and how much I enjoyed doing my pilates or going to work-out classes or running, it all fell by the wayside. I realised that I hadn’t worked out, or had any ‘me’ time since August. That’s ridiculous. And if I was your doctor, I’d tell you that laughter and exercise were essential to health, both physical and mental and tell you that it was non-negotiable. So now I schedule it in.

You get to see and learn the coolest of stuff

It’s only been a few months, but I’ve already learnt so much. Anatomy, arms, legs, bowels, livers, stomachs, arteries, illnesses, how to get information from patients, drugs, dissections, physical exams and so much more. I’ve learnt to appreciate just how amazing the human body is. And in a few short years, people will actually trust me with their life. Which is terrifying and also very rewarding. I just hope from now on, that I can fulfil that future trust in me by being a bit more focused in my approach, which hopefully will make me a better doctor