What I’ve Learned (So Far) About Navigating MS1

Now that I’ve had some time to recuperate, I’m in a bit of a reflective mood. (That, and I cannot sleep tonight.) First semester was rough at times, but it wasn’t that bad overall. As the saying goes, I’m 1/8th of an MD already! Here’s just a few things I’ve learned so far:

1) Volume

One of my biggest questions before starting school was about the volume of material. Everyone likes to throw out the “it’s like drinking from a firehose” analogy, but what does that even mean? So what was undergrad, a drip? A trickle? A water fountain? When I would ask someone what the volume looked like, visually, all I got was blank stares. What I meant was, please put it in terms I can understand. I felt that if I had a visual of what exactly this “firehose” was, I could at least be mentally prepared.

So this is how I would explain it anyone who asked me that question: In college, sure, I would study. I’d review. I’d do the homework. But I only really studied when it came down to finals. The all-day, leave-me-alone, I’ll-see-you-after-finals, do-nothing-else-but-study type of studying so I could be prepared for finals. For me, med school is that type of studying every single day. Printed notes for two weeks’ worth of material more than filled a 2.5 inch binder. It is so easy to get bogged down or to get behind. Because test questions are not as simple as they were in undergrad, which was basically a regurgitation of facts. It’s a new way of thinking that not only requires understanding what the notes say, but being able to apply it in a given situation. I feel for the first time that this is what I’ve been looking for in an education since I started high school: challenge me. It’s incredibly rewarding, but a total time sink.

School started out seeming like it was going to be impossible to stay afloat, but after a few weeks you do, somehow, get used to the volume and processing it. If this endeavor were impossible, we wouldn’t have physicians… so if we have as many physicians as we do, it can’t be as daunting as it seems in the beginning.

2) Time

I still don’t feel like I have my routine down to an art yet. How I study has completely changed since I started getting sick every day. I started the school year by reading the notes before lecture, attending lecture, and reviewing material during lunch or at home at night. Effective studying, but I was burning out quickly. At the time, I wasn’t taking any time out for myself during the week. While it is easy to fall behind or get bogged down, it is equally important to work in some down time. There are days when I come home and thought I just don’t want to do this anymore! (“Do this” = studying the same thing again.)

3) Sleep

I have yet to compromise my sleeping habits. I don’t really see the point in making myself miserable. There comes a time at night where I mentally shut down, and I know that nothing I’m reading or reviewing is sinking in. At that point, continuing is only wasting time. I’m not 21 anymore, and I’m not a gunner. Sleep is a precious commodity.

4) Books, Notes, and Lecture Slides, Oh My!

We have at our disposal so many different resources, it’s a bit ridiculous. There is no way that having a dozen resources for every class is efficient. My classmates are excellent about making review sheets, powerpoints, and other study aids that are fantastic… but they only exacerbate the problem, so I have to carefully pick & choose which ones are worth my time.

For instance, Gross Anatomy. The books that are generally required are Netter’s Atlas, Grant’s Dissector, Moore’s Clinically Oriented Anatomy, BRS (Board Review Series) Gross Anatomy… the list goes on (and on and on). Then there’s the Visual Body 3D program, a plethora of apps, Netter’s/Gray’s/Kaplan flash cards, etc. And let’s not forget the lecture notes, recorded lectures, and countless hours of lab time (with 24/7 access to the cadaver lab). Keep in mind that this is only one of the classes we’re taking, and the others are similar in resources required/recommended. It’s a bit ridiculous. Of course I want to be successful, so I’m going to want to be efficient. There is no way that I can thoroughly use each and every one of these resources without wasting a ton of time because I’m trying to do too much.

My suggestions, at least for Anatomy:
Netter’s: This is the holy grail of anatomy texts, but I don’t really like it all that much. Dr. Frank Netter was very gifted with his renditions of the human body, and they’re helpful when you’re first learning the names/layers/functions of structures, but that’s about it. Arteries aren’t bright red, veins aren’t blue in comparison (well… some were, but not most), the lymphatic system is not green, nerves are not yellow in a real body. In a real body, it can be hard to distinguish between a nerve and an artery. On our cadaver, muscles in the back were bright red, where in the abdomen and lower extremity they were more like a pinkish color, where in the face they were white. Netter’s also doesn’t do the best job in really showing the relationships between structures, such as what muscles cross other muscles, and where vessels weave in and around them. As the semester progressed, I got more and more frustrated with Netter’s and my flashcards, so I eventually quit relying on them.

Moore’s: Meh. I didn’t find this book helpful at all, minus several of the “blue boxes” with clinically-relevant information. Didn’t waste much time on it.

Visual Body 3D: Downloaded, did not use. Didn’t seem to be worth my time.

Grant’s Dissector: This book was okay. Some of the diagrams were extremely helpful for filling in gaps left by Netter’s. Overall though, I didn’t use it much after the first two weeks of dissection because our instructors usually told us the way they wanted us to proceed that deviated so much from Grant’s that it was a waste of time to read it beforehand.

A book that no one mentioned that wasn’t even required or recommended, but suggested to me by a friend who went to med school a few years back, was Rohen’s Color Atlas of Anatomy. This book saved my grade in the lab. It’s no secret that dissection was my least favorite part of the first semester; I made a great effort to spend as little time in the lab as possible because dissecting a body bothered me so much. It helped if I went into lab considering it as a job: all I had to do was finish my structures and then I could go home. Task, time, done. If I went into the lab with that robotic workaholic attitude, I could manage the urge to retch. (It did help that my dissection team had a sense of humor and we had things to talk about to pass the time.)

Lab can be frustrating because structures are hard to find, or can be destroyed, or one perfect example can be destroyed by the next day’s lab and then you have nothing left to study. Rohen’s is not a traditional textbook, but rather a large collection of color photographs of cadaveric dissections in expert examples. I would highly recommend this book to any incoming student, it made my gross anatomy life so much easier.

4) Fun

There is still plenty of time for fun in medical school. In fact, I can’t study in the unit labs because we have too much fun in there. It’s also pretty easy to get involved with a group (or two or ten) on campus. I’ve had a blast so far working with the kids in the oncology ward, helping them to SMILE. Shadowing and being a part of a research group has been a lot of fun too, and I’ve met some pretty cool people. But if that sounds like too much school-disguised-as-fun nonsense, there’s also group trips some clubs take–like the Wilderness Medicine Club–that have taken trips skiing and whitewater rafting. (Personally, I’d like to see more outings planned that significant others can also attend.)

5) The Importance of Being Friendly and Polite

Sometimes, you’ve just got to be in the right place at the right time. Not always easy to do, of course, but my momma always told me that “Someone is always watching,” which is absolutely true. I just so happened to be in the right place at the right time when I met a Program Director who shared his career advice for me. Out of the blue, I had an hour conversation with this person I’d never met before, and I really felt like I learned a lot from his advice. I ran into him a few weeks later (he’d even remembered me), and he told me about his disappointment with a few other MS1s he’d also tried to help. It always, always pays to be friendly and polite, especially in the medical field where networking can go a long way.

6) Being Married in School

I’ve hosted a few interviewees over the semester and given tours, and the question I am most commonly asked is how I handle balancing schoolwork with being married. The first semester wasn’t that bad. With David also being a student and working, he had plenty to keep him busy while I was studying. We had originally hoped to keep Friday nights as Date Nights, but with our busy schedules, that didn’t work so well. We’re hoping that with the second semester (and him “just” working instead of also tacking on school) we’ll be able to stick to it. I also tried to get all my studying done through the week so we had our weekends free. This didn’t always work, and if I had a test on Monday my weekend was booked solid for studying. But I did learn that if you prioritize your schedule, it is possible to make time for things that are important to you, be it a relationship, a hobby, or something else.

7) The Smell of Anatomy Lab

Gross Anatomy pretty much ruled my first semester. It was arguably the most challenging and required the most time. As an incoming student, I’d done a lot of research on how to avoid the smell of the lab, since that’s what all of the medical students I’d talked to had mentioned to me. There’s a ton of tricks for how to avoid the smell: put Vick’s Vapor Rub under your nose, always change clothes before lab (everything, including shoes, socks and hair ties), keeping perfume in your locker, double-gloving, washing your hair with swimmer’s shampoo… and the list goes on. At first, I did all of the above. It was a real hassle, but as the semester went on I started slacking. I quit using Vicks, and I wasn’t concerned too much about the socks and hair ties part anymore. I did throw out one set of scrubs after the second exam and brought in a new set. I can’t say that I ever really got used to the smell, but you learn to just work through it. The worst part was when I’d be driving home after lab and I could still taste the formaldehyde. That part was pretty gross. No one ever told me that they could smell it on me after lab, though, so in that respect I had an easier time of it than some of the upperclassmen I’d talked to before school began. Overall though, I’m just thankful that my school completed the entire course in one semester instead of dragging it out for the whole year.

I am so thankful that medical school is going well so far. It turns out that the words my mentor gave me long ago still ring true: “You CAN do everything… Just not all at once.” I have no doubt that this will continue to be true, especially now that we’re expecting to add to our family.

And again, if I can do all of this with being nauseated every single day, and wanting to die when I got the stomach flu… it can’t be that bad.


One thought on “What I’ve Learned (So Far) About Navigating MS1

  1. hey allie! 🙂

    my name’s kathrene and i’m a pre-med student and english major! thanks so much for creating this blog chock full of wonderful information — just by reading several of your posts, i feel so much more relaxed! for instance, i had planned to take a gap year before med school to REALLY pray and see if medicine was for me, or was my calling. (by the way, i’m also a Christ follower!) it’s such a relief now that, after reading some of your posts, i don’t have to dive right into med school after college.

    also this statement you made really eased my worries about being a doctor: “I made a great effort to spend as little time in the lab as possible because dissecting a body bothered me so much.” i always thought that to be a doctor you had to have the guts for guts & blood & other gushy stuff! i have a relatively medium tolerance level of that stuff, but i thought even that discounted me from pursuing medicine.

    thanks ALSO for sharing that quote your mentor gave you, which is that “You CAN do everything… Just not all at once.” my other passions are writing and music–specifically leading worship in church by piano and singing. i dream of being a published author one day AND putting out some sort of worship album. those are my other dreams, besides changing the lives of children with medicine.

    what you are doing is so encouraging. i believe in only great things ahead for you! shine bright!


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