Monday, May 26, 2014

The End of the First Year

As May fades away in the rearview mirror and we delve deeper into the first hints of summer, it’s hard to believe that the end of the first year of medical school has arrived. Much has happened in the past months. It seems as though we have learned more information in one academic year than many of us learned in most of our undergraduate experiences. We’ve been transformed from relative newcomers in the world of medicine to perhaps the most basic level of initiate – familiar enough to poke our way around and recognize a thing or two here and there, but with so much remaining incredibly foreign to us. We’ve been taught the basic skills of patient interviews and exams, and have gone from bumbling around in our standardized patient sessions (what do you do with this otoscope? Or is it an ophthalmoscope...?) to being able to perform relatively fluid interviews and make our way through a rudimentary exam (although, really, we’re still bumbling around – perhaps just in a slightly more polished fashion). Finally, my wife gave birth to our son almost four weeks ago – a busy addition to an already busy life, but a more than welcome one. We’re happy to have him here.

We’ve learned so much that sometimes it’s easy to think that we have come far in our medical education. And, to be sure, we have – but by no means as far as we might like to think. I was reminded of this once again while recently shadowing my third year student preceptor while he was rotating on pediatrics. While listening in on their table rounds, I was able to pick up on certain little things here and there (hey, beta-2 microglobulin? I know what that is!), but most of it flew far above my head. But while I don’t understand most of the finer points of what was being discussed, or at least only understand certain things on a rudimentary level, I found it incredible to watch how the providing team took all of these random minutia (most of which I hadn’t learned, some of which I had but was surprised to see show up in such a practical way) and fit the seemingly-unrelated pieces together to construct a coherent diagnosis and treatment plan. It was simultaneously daunting (we have to learn all this stuff?) and encouraging (it will be pretty cool to be able to do that…) to watch their finely-tuned performance.

Though I’m frequently reminded of how far I have yet to go, sometimes we get the opportunity to flex our “clinical muscles,” so to speak, and practice what we’ve learned – which is always a satisfying experience. One of the ways I was able to do this was while shadowing my physician preceptor, an internal medicine/pediatrics physician, at her clinic. There, I was able to interview several patients, including one who came in concerned that she had been feeling down for a while. She put on a brave face for the first few minutes of our interview, but when we began delving deeper into what was going on her life, she broke down into tears. My first instinct was to reach out and comfort her in some way, but I had to stop myself – this wasn’t a loved one, but rather a patient, and it probably wouldn’t help her much to have some random medical student wrap her in a bear hug. Still, though, I tried as best as I could to talk through things with her and encourage her. After I finished the interview, I presented her case to my preceptor and she came in and arranged further follow up with the patient. It was encouraging to see the patient leave with at least some hope for the future and a definitive plan in place to take care of her.

I also had the opportunity to volunteer at some of the different free clinics around the greater Chicago area. With a multitude of patients to be seen and oftentimes only one, maybe two, attending physicians present, it’s a place where bright-eyed medical students can actually, sort of, kind of be somewhat useful. Or at least we’d like to think so. In any case, it does give us the opportunity to take our interviewing and examination out of the safe walls of our clinical skills center and into the world of real medicine.  One patient in particular that I remember came in complaining of pain and swelling to his right lower leg over the past two weeks. He had a vague history of surgery to the area around six years ago or so in a different country, though he wasn’t sure what the procedure was or what it had been for. He’d now quit work because it was too painful to stand, and thus didn’t have insurance. I had the opportunity to interview him and perform an exam, noting things like pitting edema, good pulses, calf tenderness, and a distended area in his popliteal fossa that was tender to the touch. From some prior experience working in an emergency department, I was concerned that one possible cause for his symptoms might be a deep venous thrombosis. After leaving the patient’s room, I presented the case to the sole attending that was there, and after examining the patient he was also concerned that that might be the case, and started the process to get the gentlemen the care that he needed. While the role I played was small, it was still satisfying to have reached a point where I at least could recognize that something wasn’t right and build a case, using different points of evidence from the history and exam, to support what I thought was going on.

So it’s been a busy year. Even though we’ve been done for almost a week, it took me a few days to realize that it was all over and I really, actually, honestly didn’t have any more material to study. I remember thinking over Christmas that it was cool to be halfway done with our first year, but then I would remember that it was only an eighth of the way through the entire thing. It’s nice to be able to say we’re now a quarter of the way done, and half of the way through the bulk of the classroom stuff. This summer, I’ve got a clinical research project lined up that shouldn’t consume too much time, at least after a couple of semi-busy weeks, which will leave me free to hang out with my wife and our new son. We’re all looking forward to it.
P.S. I’ve been receiving more questions about how I use Anki. I’ll probably be doing a Anki Q&A: Part 2 sometime in the near future (the first one can be found here). That said, feel free to send me any questions you’d like to see addressed, either via email ( or the comment section below. 

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