Access, Privilege, and Expectations

Having completed my fourth week of med school as of today, I’ve been struck by how many times I’ve thought about both access and privilege while getting used to being a student again.

We’ve had a United States Senator visit our campus to give us advice on how to succeed in medical school. We’ve had a world-renowned hand surgeon visit our anatomy lab while we dissected the hand to demonstrate how he uses anatomy in surgery. We have quite a long list of seasoned physicians to choose from for our required preceptorships in first year–all we have to do is write an email and we are in. Now that I can say “I’m a medical student….”, a whole new world has opened up to me, and I’ve been brought in to be shown things that I would have never seen without being able to say that, things that I did not have access to even when I could say, “I’m premed…”

It all started with the White Coat Ceremony before orientation even began. The white coat is a symbol, even if outdated, that is supposed to represent someone with compassion and knowledge to heal, who can be trusted with secrets about a person that they would not tell to Average Joe on the street. It’s a lot of responsibility, and I personally do not feel like I have earned it yet. The few times I’ve worn my white coat, it has almost felt pretentious because I still do not know anything yet, so how could I be trusted? Now that I’ve seen patients four times in my white coat, it is starting to feel a bit more natural to wear it, but I still don’t quite feel ready for all that it means and represents.

I remember the first time I worked in a research lab, not yet 21 years old, and was given a key and a passcode. I couldn’t believe that someone would give that responsibility to me. That is still how I feel now.

The professional dress portion of our requirements for school still throws me off as well. I am much more comfortable in scrubs than I am heels, a skirt, and a blouse all day. Having worked in so many labs were we routinely handled corrosive and toxic substances and various bodily fluids, it has been encouraged to wear jeans and t-shirts that wouldn’t be missed if they were destroyed. That is what I am used to wearing. Having to wear dress shoes (and in my case, heels) so frequently feels (again) pretentious. I’m sure that I will adjust to it, but for now it feels so strange.

I’m also not really all that comfortable with the privilege that comes with being in this position. It sounds weird to me that a student could be in a position of privilege, but it is definitely present, even if in subtle ways.

Examples:
1) We can borrow money for school at a reduced interest rate
2) Free lunch is everywhere, and we’re recruited for many more things now; free lunch is almost definitely going to draw a crowd
3) As mentioned above, professionals are willing to seek us out to aid in our education–Senators, other people of influence, etc.
4) Access to patients and their histories–so much personal information
5) There are people who would literally bend over backward to make our dreams and goals reality
6) Student conferences (for almost anything and everything) are held in really nice locations (like SoCal), and the schools usually have a travel budget so that students can go if they want
7) International trips. Want to go to (insert country here)? Our school probably has a program. Get on a plane and just go. (See #5.)
8) Electives in a different state, area, specialty? See #7 and #5. Sure, go ahead.
9) We are entrusted with the bodies of donors for our education of anatomy

…and the list goes on.

My expectations for medical school in the beginning were many. They still are, but I don’t think that my expectations are outlandish. I’ve signed up for some things and sought out others for ideas on how to make my dreams possible, so I feel like I’m in a good position as far as the “extra” things go… so for now, all I need to do is focus on classes and passing these upcoming huge exams.

There has been a definite shift in my mode of thinking and how I use my time. “Time” has a whole new feel to it now. Hours spent in lecture go by in what seems like minutes, but 15 minutes at home studying feels like hours. It has been really hard to go to school at home and have to tell family and friends “no” when they ask to do something, even if it’s just a dinner. My time is not my own anymore, especially if I want to keep my spot in med school. I’m not used to having to study so hard, to a level that would have gotten “badass” status in undergrad, to just pass for “mediocre” now, and a lot of our families and friends don’t know that. It is important to spend time outside of medicine to feel normal, and this is what our administration has told us to do, to spend time with our “civilian” friends–which reinforces this new position of being separate and of being different. I’ve already ran into the assumptions that just because I’m home now for school that it means I am always available and can drop whatever I’m doing simply because I am “home.” It is difficult and it is stressful to have to step back and say “no”… something that I was never good at to begin with, and especially not with people that I love.

And another thing… white noise.

I use this as an affectionate term, really. “White noise” to me is, for lack of a better descriptor, the things you hear in the hallway that makes you think you are inferior. It serves as a good motivator, if nothing else. For instance, before our quiz last week, I overheard a classmate say that for this quiz, he put in 17 hours of studying. I almost instantly went into a panic attack… Holy crap, did I study enough? I’m going to fail this! But I wound up doing just fine. I haven’t even kept track of how much study time I’ve put in, I’ve just made sure that I’ve done enough to understand everything. “Comparison is the thief of joy”, as the saying goes. So since then, I’ve tried to ignore the white noise.

This being the long weekend, I’m so excited for an extra day to just study. So here I am, camped out in the library on a gorgeous summer day surrounded by anatomy and embryology books and notes.

It is definitely different, and I’m definitely still romanticizing everything that my novice self finds to be so fascinating. One month in, and I am still in shock that this school (or any of them, really) chose me to be one of their students.

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2 thoughts on “Access, Privilege, and Expectations

  1. This is a spot-on description of med school. It’s an amazing privilege and an honor…but also can be grueling and demoralizing. Sounds like you will have no problem! All the best from a fellow med student.

  2. this post so truly captures the tension of privilege/sacrifice of med school–and how to juggle ALL parts of your life and seem flawless doing it. It intensifies once you hit the wards…but is also so gratifying to care for real patients instead of going to lecture all the time. Keep on at it–you’ll be great! 🙂

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