It has been a while since I got adjusted to school life in medical school. Initially, I felt a little displaced at my new campus until I realized that I was the same school setting I had attended over the years, but in a completely different environment (both physically and socially). If my overall school experience up to this point can be symbolized by the mood present in the game Persona 4, I would assert that the mood in medical school can be represented by that present in Persona 3.
I apologize that since the start of my new school there has been a lack of posts talking about medical school itself– it took a bit for me to transition. Now that I am settled and my eyes are open however, I wanted to share what sort of lifestyle a typical medical student such as myself leads at my school. Overall, the lifestyle here tends to be moody but with a calm feel to it; pensive yet with a sense of duty … the sort of feeling Tatsumi Port Island and its surrounding areas emanates in Persona 3.
See, my medical school is a part of a health-science center in the middle of the art/culture district of downtown Fort Worth, Texas. The city itself seems a little more aged than Dallas but it and the art district especially gives off an air of being established– somewhat quaint yet asserting. My school sits in the middle of it all, flanked by the wavy roads of North Texas and the various bars/entertainment avenues that sit atop it. As a modern and “professional” institution, as well as a center to treat the ill, the University of North Texas Health Science Center glistens as an unexpected gem in an area more suited to themed cafes and exotic bars. (Prior to my enrollment here, one of my research professors mentioned the “beatniks” and “hipsters” that he stumbled upon in one of the avenues).
Once one moves towards the outskirts of the cultural district (maybe after driving for five or six minutes), the more typical urban workings of the downtown area begin to dominate the scenery. A bridge carrying Hulen St. towards the suburbs travels over a massive chasm containing a sprawling, industrial train yard. I hope to one day get close enough to photograph it, but its appearance matches almost exactly with how one would picture a dark, galvanized yard of metal and machinery that slowly groan along the endlessly branching tracks to cast eery shadows through the brittling chain fences. The roads leading up to the bridge are worn but peppered with blinking amber from the construction signs promising upkeep.
Just after crossing the bridge, a quaint high school built in the old European style stands oddly out of place from its modern surroundings. It is quickly passed however and the drive is largely uneventful as Hulen stretches out of Fort Worth and into Crowley, Texas (also known as the edge of civilization) in a straight line. Along the way, the streets grow bright as suburban neighborhoods begin to pop up along with the shopping avenues they tend to attract. Due to its length and shape, Hulen St. seems to harbor every conceivable shop and then some. Aside from the typical grocery and electronics stores, adjacent blocks contain a number of strip malls that are home to the sort of small niche shops that one would only expect in a shopping mall. (Think along the lines of weirdly foreign sounding clothes stores and shops that you are surprised to see in business.) In fact, one could theorize that a shopping mall had come along one day and thrown up its shops into the surrounding area, but the fact that an actual mall (Hulen Mall) stands amidst this conglomeration not only renders this theory implausible but also ends up making the sight even more perplexing. Nevertheless, it is convenient to have a multitude of shops within walking distance as I have opted to live in a quiet apartment complex right next to Hulen Mall.
Overall, the environment is a stark contrast from the peaceful suburbs that my undergraduate college resides in, but I was surprised to find that the social culture of medical school contrasts even more so.
In undergrad, everyone has wildly different class schedules from one another; due to the number of teachers, classes, and majors, it is almost guaranteed that one will not have an identical course schedule with another. In medical school, the entire class is taught by the same teachers in the same room at the same time– identical schedules. This set-up has an interesting effect on the social structure of the school. First off, despite the fact that the class (and thus, the entire class year) has around 240 students, you will get familiarized with almost everyone in the class. Trust me– I was skeptical as I do not often go out of my way to talk to people, but it’s amazing how open facing the same onslaught of tests as your classmates will make one another. Since people will be together in all their classes in some form, they are usually fairly open and welcoming when talking/working with one another, even if they have just met (I was invited to a barbeque completely out of the blue after meeting someone). Think what the first few weeks of undergrad is like (everyone being super welcoming to one another since everyone is scrambling to make friends) but imagine the social climate being permanently stuck like that.
Of course, this sort of climate does vary from school to school and even from year to year. There is an inescapable sense of unity, but this can manifest itself in either a positive or negative manner. For example, I count myself lucky that my class/year is extremely helpful to one another and openly shares its notes on the official class Facebook. As a master-stroke, someone even set up a Google Drive, uploaded our lectures onto it, and shared it with everyone in the class. The result? Live, synchronized note taking during lectures. Since the lectures on Google Drive can be edited simultaneously in real time by everyone in the class as the professor talks, lectures have gotten so much more interesting. Not only is every piece of important information captured and typed onto the lecture power-points, but you also get a live commentary on the lecture in the little chat-room housed on the same page. This is profoundly useful in terms of clarifying concepts with one another but also serves an additional purpose of showcasing students’ reactions to confounding/silly things the professor may do (such as if he decides to make an oddly dark joke or mispronounces something horribly). You would think that some jerk would try to mess up this nifty little set-up, but thankfully our class doesn’t seem to contain anyone that horrible.
Conversely, a class can end up as being a “cut-throat” one (and there are schools/classes with such reputations). In these sorts of classes, the students seem to have latched firmly onto their pre-medical (and misguided) mindsets of obtaining the highest GPAs no matter what the cost. The result? Students being secretive with one another about any sort of potentially helpful information. Usually, such classes also include students that go out of their way to mess up their peers just so that they can move up a few ranks; intentionally sharing wrong information, switching around tags during practicals, tearing sheets out of a patient’s chart to make that student look bad with his inevitably wrong diagnosis, stealing another person’s notes the night before an exam… these are golden tactics for “gunners.” That’s right– these type of students are common enough that there is a term specifically used to describe them. Thankfully, nobody seems to be like that in our class, but the above examples are true cases that I have heard about and there are certainly schools with reputations of being full of “gunners.”
The unity within the class is an interesting affair since, at first glance, the class looks extremely mismatched. Along with being rather culturally mixed, the student body also fluctuates wildly in terms of age and education level. In our class alone, we have students who were practicing doctors in their home countries, art school dropouts, disillusioned engineers, a guy in his late forties, students with Masters degrees, people who have already worked as nurses or pharmacists… the list goes on and on. I actually feel like a part of a small minority of “traditional” students who came to medical school straight after obtaining an undergraduate degree in Biology. But despite this, everyone is on the same level here. Everyone is taking the same classes, the same exams… everyone is your colleague. One day you will be palpating the gluteal tissue of a girl older than you by over 5 years (but is paradoxically smaller than you in every way) and the next you will be trying to grab the sweaty, stumpy neck of a guy your age– after a while, the differences just don’t seem to matter that much.
What is different as a result of this disparity however is the ways in which people de-stress, particularly after an exam. Most of the students who are married tend to scurry home to see their wives and kids, the older students (the majority of the class) tend to go get drunk in the bars within walking distance from campus, and some students like me drag themselves to the ping-pong tables to look stupid in front of competent players (only to blame it on being tired after a night of studying!) Stress is undeniably a major presence in medical school and persists as an obstacle that must be overcome almost daily. In an almost humorous moment, I overheard a girl once say something in a dejected voice while leaving class that I found to be very indicative of how deeply stress is intertwined with our school lives, “Guys… can we do something that doesn’t end up with us wasted for once…?”
So what is a typical day like for me exactly? Well, it usually involves getting up early enough to dodge the morning traffic so that I can make my 8AM class. I try my best to power through the lectures on my (often skimpy) breakfast until our lunch break at 12PM. Since I can usually finish my lunch in about half an hour, I spend the remaining time in the student lounge playing ping-pong with my friends (we often just hold a conversation while rallying a ping-pong ball back and forth). As I hurry to class after break, I try to power through the rest of the day without being too tired. Since we usually have some sort of lab or clinical class after lunch, it usually isn’t too difficult to get through the rest of the day.
As I walk back to my locker, I try to see if the second year students have left any food for us (they actually like taking care of us when not hogging the TVs in the library). If it’s a good day, I can usually find little baggies of candy or a platter of cake or cookies on the table with a cheerful note telling us not to give up (aren’t they such kind senpais?). As I grab my things, I walk towards the gym– a fairly new addition to my routine, but a welcome one. A friend of mine, Josin, has started bringing me there and acting as my work-out buddy (especially since I know next to nothing about working out). As we begin our routine of cycling for 30 minutes, we distract ourselves from our oxygen-deprived muscles by making conversation and reflecting about our day. I’ve really grown to look forward to these conversations, since one tends to bond with their classmate when blowing off steam after a long day.
As we catch our breath afterwards, we move on to the weight machines which, more often than not, have to be demonstrated first by Josin before I can figure out how to use them. We take turns between lifting and spotting. While one person concentrates on lifting, the other spouts words of motivation and sometimes… gossip. In fact, I was a little taken aback at how fast and furious gossip travels within our class, though it is to be expected when everyone knows one another. “A made fun of B, but B said he didn’t mind but told C behind A‘s back that A was starting to tick him off and A found out from C so both A and C are mad at each other too now and D is trying to patch things up between them because their study group is falling apart but then E finds out about everything and blabs it to F who is also B‘s friend, so it is unlikely that B will be returning…etc…etc…” Gossip spreads like wildfire, making conversing seem closer to how it was in high school than college.
By the time Josin and I are finished, we leave the gym with the moon firmly replacing the sun as the sole light-source in the sky. As we walk, we talk about how busy this week was, and how busy next week will be, and how insane the week after that will be, before cutting ourselves off. All that is too far into the future. As we walk back to our cars, we agree that we just need to take it one week at a time.