Preconceived notions about med school – you have had them, I have had them and they have all been royally debunked in the years that we had been here, but did not want to admit to anyone that did not belong to medical fraternity. Between the time I was in med school and now, it seems that the silver-lined clouds that all medical students envision before entering into the hallowed world of medicine, have taken a grayish hue.
There was a time when stupid, naïve eighteen year olds like us thought that getting into med school would be it. We would be at the epitome of parental approval. No longer would we be the kids to whom any and all foolish traits could be attributed to. Ha! We, the stupid, naïve eighteen year olds definitely got it wrong.
It was definitely not enough to get a decent GPA above three, because the children of your parents’ friends were getting four plus. You could definitely have gotten a four if you hadn’t spent all that time on Facebook. Or maybe indulged yourself with watching Friends after a tough day. But can’t parents realise getting a higher GPA than the offspring of their friends is not the only important thing?
Being a medical student suddenly loses its charm when the ‘paros waalon ki larki’ can cook great Chinese and you have a hard time boiling an egg. And, of course, she looks better doing it so the rishtay waali aunties are clamouring for her attention (Hello! All that time walking to a ward had to take its toll). Many of my friends’ prospective moms-in-law asked them what they could cook. One of them replied she didn’t cook. Period. The result? Proposal withdrawn. A doctor bahu who can cook excellent food is what moms want for their sons, so that is not a myth!
Then there was the part when we rejoiced in the delusion that we would bask in the awe and respect of our relatives. That goes south when six months into first year, your elderly khala comes to you about a pesky skin rash and asks for your expert opinion. You have probably never actually seen a rash like that, and of course you have no way of knowing how to treat it. So, you sheepishly mumble something about not being really qualified, yet. The response is something along the lines of ‘neem hakeem khatra-e-jaan’. And that’s that. Any recognition that you had established prior to this is effectively nullified. This khala promptly tells everyone that you are not applying yourself to your studies and wasting the government’s money since you are in a public university.
There is that tendency of our grandmothers which leads them to think that we will enter med school, find that infinitely eligible single doctor class fellow or even a senior. Fast forward a few years and we would be living in our small medical heaven raising small doctor kids. They forget to factor in the hopeless male/female ratio, and also the absolutely pitiful salary of young doctors. Finding a boy in this climate: not easy! Oh, some girls do manage, but it does not help that in public universities the aforementioned male/female ratio is not conducive for young female doctors looking for young male doctors. However, you cannot make your grandmother and mother understand this. That’s pretty much what your family does to you.
Then there is what medicine does to you. Does anyone recall those donation advertisements that go up every time around Ramazan showing a glowing, white-coated individual adorned with a stethoscope, holding a sick child’s hand, with all the strength of humanity shining in his eyes? You think you will be that person. You think you are going to walk in through the doors of the hospital and start saving lives left, right and centre. In reality, you buy a shiny, new stethoscope before the start of your clinical rotations. All of a sudden, you realise that you don’t exactly know how to use it. Very few bother to really learn (and here I am talking about actually using it to diagnose something, not just to hear the tap-tapping of the heart).
After a week, you stop bringing it to college. Next thing you know, out of the blue, a teacher asks you to take it out. You become red-faced, and the teacher gives you a blistering lecture about the type of doctor you are becoming. You listen, promptly forget, and the next day, you still don’t have it. Far from saving lives, you realise that going near most patients is a bit of a problem since they haven’t had a shower for days. You are new and don’t realise that poor patients do not always have the luxury of taking baths and changing clothes at will. That comes a bit later, mostly during house job. So, gradually, the two hours that you are supposed to spend in the ward dwindle down to under an hour and that’s on the days you actually go.
Doctors can do no wrong. That’s what they say and you believe it. You think that all senior doctors are paragons of virtue. Then you enter the hospital and this apparently normal senior doctor makes eyes at your pretty friend. This pretty friend tries to avoid him as much as possible but he still comes after her with the tenacity of a bloodhound. There is a silver lining to everything, right? Because of my pretty friend, our group got some perks and that is all I will say. Rotation ends. Three months later you hear he has found a new victim.
We have all seen that one medical TV show. Be it House or Grey’s Anatomy or our very own (albeit slightly old) Dhoop Kinaray. And because of these entertaining, yet somewhat misleading TV shows, you come in expecting good-looking doctors, mind blowing cases, an inspiring soundtrack running at the back of your head. What you get are aforementioned bloodhound doctors. The mind blowing cases turn out to be a long line of hernias, thyroids and kidney stones. Occasionally, when an unfortunate six-legged kid comes in for surgery, you are shooed away. And about that inspiring soundtrack at the back of your head, that’s a professor telling you for the six millionth time about the importance of taking patient’s history.
Ask any first-year medical student what he wants to specialize in, and most will reply with surgery. Two or so years later, you walk into the OT wearing your brand new scrubs. You think you will be ‘scalpelling’ away to your heart’s content. Reality: after taking that obligatory display/cover picture portraying your scrubs in all their glory, you proceed to learn in great detail about what exactly the back of a surgeon looks like. You might see a few blood stains but the inside of a body cavity – no way. The presence of the lead surgeon, the assisting surgeon, the anaesthetist, the residents, the house officers, OT technicians and the nurses leaves no room for a doctor-in-training to be on the forefront. Did you really think that a few lowly students who really have no idea about what’s actually being done will actually get to satisfy their curiosities? Yeah, right. A few OT days later, the scrubs no longer seem that appealing. You come to realise that the OT which had previously been – in your opinion - the centre for life-saving activities is actually a shrine to all manner of crass jokes. Oh, you have no idea about the type of jokes noble doctors throw about. Oh, and it doesn’t matter to them that female students are also listening to their crass humour. Distinction between sexes is the first thing that erodes in med school, but getting used to such jokes take time. It takes a while longer for you to laugh at or share these jokes.
Then there is that one myth, dispelling which will invite all sorts of flack for this lowly scribe. Which one of us hasn’t implied or stated outright to our non-medical family and friends about how we have no lives, how we are so busy studying that we have time for little else. Oh please! TV shows are seen with religious regularity, a trip to a fast food joint comes up every now and then. Weddings, birthday parties and get-togethers are rarely missed (apart from that one month before and during exams). It would be a gross injustice not to mention the awesome lunches and dinners that pharma companies give on seminars and conferences. And so, contrary to what we like to tell people – and, of course, also to ourselves on occasion - we do have a life. And we live it fully. Not the happening ones of the LUMS, IBA, CBM variety, but a life nonetheless.
But, don’t worry folks! There is life beyond. A life when the day you get your degree is the proudest day of your parents’ lives. When you finally get a salary that is higher than your bills (even if sometimes it comes after protesting in front of the Karachi Press Club). When after going through all that you have been through, you finally save a life for real. Now that I am a practicing doctor, I can attest to the fact that when you know enough to tell people what is wrong with them and see their gratitude filled faces in return, it gives you a feeling that cannot be described in words. Here’s to our journey – the one we’ve had, the one we’re on and the one to come.