Monday, November 19, 2007


Life of a Second Year

In a fruitless effort to tidy up my life and work space, I recently came across a writing assignment from the end of the first year of medical school in which each class member was asked to write a short reflection on medical school. I wrote:

In reflecting upon my first year of medical school, only one word immediately comes to mind: stress.”

Of course, I went on a bit more eloquently to say how the stress was worth it because learning to be a doctor was my goal, and yada, yada, yada.

If I were to repeat the little writing exercise this year and come up with one word to describe second year, I would choose…well, I would pick…actually, I have nothing.

Content? Well, yes, I am content, but I definitely want more. It is not as if I went around as a little girl saying, “Gee, I want to be a second year medical student when I grow up.”

Overwhelming? Occasionally. Intellectually stimulating? Of course, but at times, studying is just plain boring – no matter how interesting the material.

No adjective seems to fit quite right. One thing for sure, I am definitely not stressed– at least, not in the way I was stressed as a first year student.

Last year, having just moved to the big, bad city of New York, armed with fresh memories of my post-collegiate existence, I was severely alarmed by the amount of time I spent in the library. When I was not studying, I found myself thinking about how much I should be studying. I was in the middle of the most fabulous city in the world, and yet, the highlight of my first year fall semester was mastering the brachial plexus. Maybe I exaggerate--but not by much.

This year, I find myself studying even more than I did last year, and honestly, a part of me actually likes it. While one might attribute this to some sort of study-related psychosis, I think it comes down to one basic fact: I am finally becoming semi-literate in the foreign language we call medicine.

Instead of needing to look up every fifth word in papers and textbook assignments, I now only look up every twentieth word and fluidly incorporate jargon like “cachexia” and “cyanosis” into routine conversation. As an attendee of the recent American College of Surgeon’s annual clinical congress in New Orleans, I sat in on various lectures ranging from robotics and surgery in the 20th century to lower leg reconstruction--and I actually understood what was being presented! (Well, maybe not all of it, but a good 90% of it.) It was as if, through this new language, I had gained membership into a secret society in which everyone is required to wear suits, nametags and carry around dorky conference bags. Of course, with over 70,000 members, the American College of Surgeons isn’t really secret. Regardless, I was pretty satisfied with myself.

So is that the word that describes second year? Satisfying? Well, perhaps for a nanosecond. I was satisfied, that is, until I stepped on the plane to return home to New York City and realized that if there were a medical emergency and someone shouted for a doctor, my ability to offer medical aid would be nothing short of inadequate.

It was at that moment that I realized no amount of word mastery will qualify me to be a physician. In the language of medicine, actions truly do speak louder than words.

And until I begin to master those actions, I will not be satisfied fully. I can’t think about it too hard, though. If I do, I’ll be back to square-one, and back to stressed. Perhaps for the moment, I will just have to be satisfied with being inadequate.

Yes, that’s it. Life as a second year medical student is satisfyingly inadequate.

ShortCoat is a column that discusses the humor, heartache,and humanity of becoming a doctor. Alexandra Sowa is a second year medical student at NYU School of Medicine.

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