Many high performing candidates when asked what their career aspirations are, being a doctor ranks in the same breath as being a lawyer, engineer, architect. This notion of how important medicine is further finds a heart with a society which has for ages romanticised doctors-the career of the sharp people who understands human anatomy, can bring the critically ill to life, they almost play God.
Parents with academically brilliant children, those who slay all subjects and bring home nothing but straight ‘A’s, also desire that these sharp minds take nothing less than medicine. Besides earning them a prefix before their name, it also allow the parents the bragging rights of being called Baba Daktari or Mama Daktari. With that, they walk with their heads held high as it reserves them a seat at the high table during important gatherings, especially in the village.
But therein lies the problem. Having gone through six years of it, just listen to me: Med School is not for the fainthearted. Forget it if you have no burning desire to serve people as a doctor. Without a heart for service, you will do more harm than good.
On our first day of orientation, the then dean warned us that Med School was the one place where one should be prepared to fail. While we had been used to topping our classes with almost 100 per cent in our subjects, medicine would be the first place one would undoubtedly fail. This was meant to be friendly advice from a senior doctor. “How?” we mused in hush tones, “If we aced biology, maths and chemistry, what will be so hard here?” We dismissed that advice with the contempt it didn’t deserve.
Many years later, when we looked back at our Med School transcripts we do not recognise we sat those exams, that these papers were ours. Obviously, we laugh about it now that we have long survived that journey, but back then it was no laughing matter.
Med School breaks your soul. You go there as the brightest chap, the crème de la crème but you come out grateful that the school has no honours, that you all just had a pass, be it the nerdy guy who got 90 something and you (often the majority) with your 50 per cent, barely on the pass mark.
You get to appreciate how hard it is to get a 50 per cent, something that as a bright high school student came effortlessly. In Med School, those are long nights, heavy books and quiet library moments, uncomfortable laboratory hours and a tonne of gratitude.
You quickly learn, (actually forced), to appreciate that life is not about academic grades and being top of the class. You master the Gaussian Curve, and as long as the grade you get is anything above the pass mark, you are happy. When you spot your name on the notice board at the end of every quarter and every year, you are just grateful that you didn’t fall through the cracks like so many others.
Woe unto those who go into Med School because the parents said so. That place will cultivate a miserable child, a sad human being and an unhappy doctor if they survive long enough to make it through the harrowing six years. That place is like an altar of sacrifice; you have to be willing first and foremost to give up yourself because it becomes a life long commitment to serve humanity, prioritising others’ needs. If you are an unwilling participant, you become the sacrificial lamb, and the flames of the school will consume every bit of flesh you have.
Apart from the volumes and volumes of content that one has to go through, some of the lecturers for the better part of the journey are mean. The jury is still out there on whether this is deliberate or not. My own thinking is that they also underwent a similarly fiery experience as undergraduate and postgraduate students that this kind of training and handling students in medicine has been normalised. Tragic. Ward rounds and any such interactions would belittle you ego and kill your spirit some more. Should you miss an answer you’d get a response that embarrasses you in front of your seniors, peers and juniors alike.
We would laugh about it then, but in hindsight that was so not funny because it either kills one’s confidence and self-esteem or develops a mean-spirited person. There is no winning and it takes years to undo this. One time in a Breast Surgery clinic, one of our colleagues walked in a little bit late. She had several ear piercings all adorned with earrings. Our lecturer, who has since died, took one hard look at her and said, “You know, you are the most perforated girl I have ever seen.”
Of course, we burst out laughing because of the many insinuations and conclusions one could make of that comment. Looking back though, that was mean and we should have probably said something about it but when you are in a disadvantaged position as a student who just wants to be a doctor someday. But sometimes, it was innocent silly curiosities that either shaped our understanding of issues or shocked us into reality. One of those was the notion that going to the morgue in first year is a way to start acclimatising to the many days that will be spent in the human anatomy lab. Forget it if you are fainthearted.
What I saw at Chiromo Mortuary then is imprinted in mind. It has never left me. I learnt the hard way that there is a major difference between a laboratory and a morgue. I would pick a laboratory any day. It was traumatic as was the next time I was in a morgue as a Third-year medical student doing pathology. We were required to witness and several post-mortems, as part of our learning. I can still see in my mind’s eye, the young nine-year-old girl who had died of pneumonia; bald, light-skinned and very calm but we had to open her up.
Unfortunately, no one ever prepares you for the ugly side of this school. You have to find a way of dealing with it, in your own way because anything else may be a sign of weakness, and who wants a weak doctor anyway? These things don’t leave you and if you are not willing to be a part of such, don’t sign up.
The best part about Med School though is that you form lasting friendships and bonds that only those who have gone through this furnace can understand. These colleagues with whom you were moulded together understand you and see you as you are because you have been in the trenches together.
Med School is an eye-opener. It gives you a good understanding of the human body and the human being. You see people of all walks of life; you see humanity at its best and at its worst. The moment one understands this bit, then they realise what their calling is, which may not necessarily to be the neurosurgeon they proclaimed to want to be, but to be of service to humanity in whatever capacity.
And boy! don't medical students also fail. This mostly when otherwise bright students do medicine not out of their free will but from other external pressures, and are bound to struggle throughout the course. It is not that they do not have the ability to, but rather their abilities have been mismatched to a course that is brutal in nature. And that is okay, even if one drops out half way through Med School or later on by venturing into other career paths. I know some who went into business, aviation, IT and actually thrive..