For the past 3 semesters, I've spent my days as a medical student. But I'm not training to be a doctor. I'm just trying to learn more about how the human body works. Megan Sperry, my co-editor, and I are both part of a training program that hopes to give bioengineers a [very prolonged, year-and-a-half] look into the human body to allow them to better design interventions and imaging technologies. Because we're a small cohort of around 3 students every year, we are fully integrated into the medical school curriculum. So much so that at the end of our preclinical coursework, I had multiple people ask me, 'Wait, you're not trying to get an MD??' as they talked about their upcoming clinical rotations and I talked about my upcoming lab rotations. We attended all the lectures, worked with a team of other medical students to solve cases, and took all of the exams. At times, it felt like I was in a totally bizarre psychological experiment: 'What happens if you put two students who never prepared to go to medical school through all of the craziness that is medical school and these students actually don't want to be doctors at all?' But then I would remind myself that I chose this path for myself, and that I was actually learning some super cool things about the human body and about how doctors are trained to tackle problems and fit inside the medical system. (Bonus: I'm fully planning on getting free medical consultations for the rest of my life from my classmates who will some day be kick-ass doctors.)
1. The kidneys are CRAZY complicated and important organs that seem to be responsible for everything that goes wrong in the body. I used to think they weren't that big of a deal because you could donate one and be fine. BOY was I wrong. They filter 180 liters of plasma per day, which is a ton considering your body only has 3 liters of plasma. So you can imagine all of the important things that are happening in the kidneys if the plasma passes through 60 times per day.
2. The future physicians I've gotten to know and love are some of the most dedicated people I know. They really care about their future patients.
3. The old [currently changing] medical education system isn't good at helping future doctors maintain empathy for their patients. It starts off in the first semester of medical school dissecting a cadaver. I had to distance myself from idea that the body whose tendons I was dissecting and pulling to watch the limbs move had once been a man with a family and a life. In some way, hardening yourself is a mechanism of survival. But when doctors begin interacting with living patients with living families, I think it’s crucial for them to be able to tap back in to their empathy stores.
4. I think the medical education system is moving in a direction in which it is helping future doctors to maintain empathy for their patients. (Yay!). Classes are being incorporated into the curriculum that try to teach medical students how to compassionately interact with patients of many backgrounds. They learn how race, gender, and sexual orientation can impact a patient’s access to healthcare. They learn the difference between transgender and transsexual and how crucial it is to respect a patient’s gender identity.
5. Memorizing long lists of antibiotics is the pits and something I'm so glad I'll never have to do again. But I’m glad my future doctors are memorizing them because we need doctors who are dedicated to being stewards of our limited antibiotic pipelines to prevent an explosion of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
6. The human body is amazing! And it is so terrifying everything that can go wrong.
7. I'm so glad I wasn't pregnant while studying genetics and embryology. (See number 6 above).
8. There is so much that we don't know about how the body works, but a lot of the theories about how things work are presented as facts in medical school. There isn't much time in the fast-paced curriculum to stop and question the facts you're learning. For example, it wasn’t until I began my lab rotation in an epigenomics lab that I realized the way transcription of genes was taught in medical school is the dramatically simplified version of what happens in yeast; it isn’t even relevant to how it works in mammals.
9. Medicine has a gender problem almost as bad as engineering. Because women make up half of the medical students nationally, I had always assumed this wasn't the case. But there is a severe dearth of women in leadership roles and in some of the highest paid specialties. I’ve gotten a bit of insight into the source of this issue: a lot of women steer clear from certain specialties because they know that their work environment would not be enjoyable due to the male-dominated culture. Megan and I both heard that from MANY women. We need to fix this.
10. I’m convinced that having a good primary care doctor is important to longevity. We heard this over and over again in the medical school curriculum. We have a conundrum, though, because top medical schools seem to have a cultural bias against primary care as a choice of a specialty. There is a sense that if you come to a highly ranked academic medical institution to be trained, you should pursue academic medicine or a specialized field. A group of medical students decided to tackle this problem head on this year and they had an amazing panel discussion with students, medical professors, and primary care doctors. To me, this shows that there are future and current doctors who care about the social implications of their career choices and want to be encouraged to explore the full range of options available to them. Again, I think things are moving in a positive direction.
My med school boot camp was a mixed bag of highs and lows. There were times that definitely weren’t so awesome and I wondered, ‘Why are you doing this? You should be doing research in a lab right now, not memorizing every single muscle in the human body!’ But then I would get to dissect a human brain and hold organs riddled with tumors and hear patients talk about their cancer treatments and think, ‘Wow. I am so lucky to get to experience this.’ My hope is that these experiences will allow me to place my current and future research into the larger context of the human body and the medical system. I’m so glad I had this experience, and I’m so glad that it’s over.