An honest account of preclinical medicine

Hey there! Long time no see… my bad. I always intended to continue this blog into university but it turns out, uni is tougher than I first envisaged and not in the ways I expected either. So I dropped the blog. But now that I’ve made it through the pre-clinical years, which some people call the hardest out of the whole course, I thought now was an appropriate time to check back in. Let any readers who are still out there know what I’ve been up to and what I’ve learnt these past couple of years. So here goes.

 

The prospect of university is so exciting. When you’ve been to hell and back to get an offer it’s even more so. This is what you’ve worked so hard for for several years. And now you’re here. Great! What now? My first hurdle. When the goal has always been ‘get into medicine’ what on earth are you meant to do when it’s achieved?! I guess the next goal is… qualify? It’s so weird not having the classic ‘get into medicine’ to push you anymore. Of course you’re still motivated, there’s still more mountains to climb and all that, but it all feels so far off and therefore not a very powerful motivator. It took me a while to work out what to aim for, what to work towards. I very quickly had to come to grips with the notion that I was not aiming to be top of the year- and that’s it’s own separate issue. And I felt like ‘pass first year’ wasn’t enough really.

It took me a while, but I did finally see that the problem with all of these motivators is that they were all very academia-driven. ‘What are you going to achieve?’ And I surprised myself in the realisation that I didn’t want that to be the basis for what drove me anymore. It’s so great working hard and getting the certificate at the end but I didn’t want to be happy at the end. 6 years? I’ll be happy in 6 years when I qualify? No thank you. Arriving at university, I felt a shift in my priorities. I wanted to enjoy myself. I wanted to try new things. I wanted to work hard, sure but I lost interest in being the best in the class and made a conscious decision that from now on that I was going to be the best me. A good person, a happy person, a person that leaves her mark on the world in some tiny way.

So, new goal. Somebody give me a gold star! But… then the self-doubt kicked in. Everyone’s so smart at university. Every person in this lecture theatre was the top in their class and you know what they say; when everybody’s special then no one is. I know, I know, boo hoo you’re not special anymore. But it was less about being special and more about being me. Being ‘the smart one’ had been a huge part of who I was my whole life and now I’m… not… that? That honour was ripped from me rather unceremoniously and I was left with this gaping hole in my identity.

In many ways, it was freeing. At high school I often felt as if people only saw me as smart and nothing else. So it was nice to feel seen. Yes, I have hobbies let me tell you about them! Oh you like my boots? Why thank you very much, I do too, they’re my babies. Wowww how is it we have the same taste in music? Amazing! But as freshers wound down and people actually started to buck up and focus on uni I realised how out of my depth I felt in this sea of smarticles. I’m not ‘the smart one’ anymore. Does that make me tHe dumB One? Oof well I guess it does. And that’s that.

It disappoints me how quickly I just accepted a ‘yeah I’m not that smart’ mentality. 18 years of believing in myself and in just one month that self-belief is toppled? Wow. But that’s what happened. It wasn’t so much the course that made me feel this way as the people on the course. Medical students are so intimidating. Everyone seemed so driven and so much more hard-working than me. They were still trying to be top of the class, something I gave up doing immediately upon arrival as I was slapped in the face by the realisation that that was most definitely not going to happen. And whilst I was still adjusting to university teaching, trying to fill that hole in my identity and attempting to make those ‘lifelong friends’ I was promised, the people around me seemed to have it all sorted and didn’t need to waste any time with that nonsense. They were going straight for the kill. `

Or at least, that’s what I thought. I made friends. And they were as clueless as I was and that was brilliant. I felt so lucky to have found the handful of normal people amongst the terrifying robotic medical-student-cohort. And that circle widened. And kept widening. Turns out there were more humans in this yeargroup than I thought. After two years, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s maybe only one or two intimidating geniuses amongst the 300-odd in my year. The rest of us are confused, falling behind and stressed and that’s ok. It was hard for me at the beginning because I assumed no one else felt like I did. I’d sit in a lecture without a clue what Werner was on about and feel bad about myself, I’d look around and see everyone else scribbling notes ferociously and nodding along and I’d feel 10 times worse. But things changed when I turned to the person beside me and whispered ’I have no idea what’s going on’. Because it turned out neither did they. Maybe I’m not so dumb after all.

I can’t say that I felt self-doubt once, fixed it and then never felt it again. Confidence is like your skin. There’s good days and bad days. But I can say that talking to people about how you feel and being strong enough to ask for help when you need it is the metaphorical zit-cream to your self-doubt breakout. If you don’t know what’s going on, chances are no one else does. That’s because you are smart. You got into medical school because you’re damn smart and you earned your place. So shake off that imposter syndrome because it’s not a good look on you.

 

Now I want to talk about self-worth. What do you value about yourself? What makes you proud to be you? The answer should be that you value yourself regardless of your achievements but sadly for so many people that’s simply not true. I think it’s a symptom of living in a society that values economic growth over personal and social growth but that’s just my tuppences’-worth. The point is that being ‘the smartest’ or being a medical student or getting that promotion or making money isn’t your sole purpose in life and as such shouldn’t be the only way in which you measure how successful you are. And it’s easy to stand up on my high horse now but for most of my life I pretty much did just that so I only speak from experience.

The problem with pinning all of your self-worth on your academic achievement is that when you aren’t achieving academically so much then you’re not anything. And that’s the trap I fell into this year. Second year is really tough. Especially in the first term where there’s so much to cover in such a short space of time. And when I was having those self-doubts, they turned from ‘oh I’m falling behind’ to ‘I’m no good at anything’ to ‘I’m utterly failing in life’. And I wasn’t. That’s a rather ridiculous connection to make really, in hindsight. But at that time that’s how I really felt.

I am not just a medical student. I’m a daughter, sister, friend, singer, dancer, writer, foodie and much more. Medicine shouldn’t be your whole life, just a part of it. So, it stands to reason that your success in medicine should only form a part of your opinion on yourself, not the whole thing. That means that when you’re not at your A game in medicine you’re not ‘failing at life’ you’re just having a hard time and one you’ll get through.

This doesn’t just apply to medical students but to everyone. If I was to ask you, ‘describe yourself’, what would you say? It shouldn’t be hard to rattle off a massive list because you are so much more than just the job you do. And if you lose that job, you won’t lose yourself. You’ll just be your lovely, wonderful self, minus a job. A setback, yes, but not the end of the road. Just keep swimming and love yo-self.

 

Losing your passion is a slow burn. You don’t realise it’s happening until you get it back and you feel amazing, like you’ve found a part of yourself you hadn’t known you’d lost. Medical school has a way of killing your passion for medicine. You wouldn’t think it, but it’s true and a very common phenomena amongst medical students. And pre-clinical teaching is notorious for it. Sitting in a lecture is not medicine and as a medical student, it’s not really what you signed up for. Yes, you knew it’d happen but you didn’t apply to medicine because what you wanted more than anything in the world is to have 25 lectures a week. I mean, you might’ve but… I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the 95% of medical students who applied to study medicine because they want to help people and people is exactly what pre-clinical teaching is lacking. So it’s no wonder that these first couple of years are tough for a lot of students, myself included. It’s hard to see the bigger picture and feel that warmth in your heart of ‘yeah, I’m doing something good with my life’ when you’re being taught from a powerpoint and start falling into the medical-school-trap of thinking of patients as case studies rather than people.

I also think it’s hard to appreciate and enjoy what you’re learning when it’s all so fast paced. Sure, I love lemonade but if you use a water cannon to serve it to me I’m not gonna be happy. And that’s why I stopped writing this blog. I lost my passion for medicine. Or rather, misplaced it. Revising for my online exam in lockdown (ty, Rona) I found it again. That’s because I was given breathing space. At the time I was miserable (special shoutout to neuroanatomy) learning this stuff but during this past couple months I got to study at a better pace and actually found myself enjoying it. Huzzah! And just like that, a spark of passion.

The final burst I needed to really bring it back was seeing that bigger picture, again thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. This has been a really awful few months for the world. I’m probably one of the rare few who have a good word to say about lockdown and for that I’m grateful. But this pandemic reminded me, and the rest of the country, how important the NHS is. How essential health workers are and how amazing what they do is. And I’m proud to be a part of it in the not-so-distant future. I wish it didn’t take a pandemic for people to say ‘we appreciate you’ to health workers but at least it’s here now. I’m hoping this appreciation for the NHS will last beyond this outbreak.

In case you’re wondering whether I really am as passionate as I claim to be again, the fact that you’re reading this is proof. If you had told me 6 months ago that I would be writing a self-reflective essay for fun in the near future I would have laughed you out of London. But now I’ve got my mojo back and I’ve found it cathartic to put my little journey onto paper. As for sharing it with the rest of you… that was a little more uncertain. I wrote this very 50-50 about whether it would ever make it onto the blog because it’s not all that cheery, I worried readers might not find it interesting plus it feels a little personal. But in the end I decided to post it for anyone out there who might relate and for anyone who might benefit from my not-very-groundbreaking wisdom.

 

I’m happy to report I’m happy. For anyone reading this thinking ‘damn uni ain’t all it’s cracked to be’, it is. Don’t let me put you off. Despite the way I’ve perhaps presented university in this blog post, I have had a blast at UCL. What I’ve written about are blips in an overall fab couple of years. And I can’t wait to go back in September, see all my lovely friends again and start my iBSc in Global Health!

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