The first week of medical school you became a new person. Assigned a cadaver and some partners in your first anatomy lab, the gravity of the endeavor struck you to your core as you slowly unzipped the cadaver bag for the first time and met “Ernie” (as you later named him) and wondered how he died. You looked to the table beside you where blue nail polish could still be seen on the toes of the preserved woman in the next group over. This was your first experience with learning to detach so that you could do the job at hand. You delved excitedly into understanding the complexities of the human body.
You would dissect and label every nerve, artery, ligament, and bone. The smell of formaldehyde became a constant that first year and you had to change clothes as soon as you left the lab to merge back in with the “normal world” around you.
You forged friendships over late night study sessions. The first (and only) time you failed a histology test you were shocked. Grades had always come so easily before, but now you were competing with the best students in the country, and the stakes were high. Learning the material was now not just about getting a good grade, but about becoming a competent physician and saving a life one day. Your commitment became a passion.
“Work hard, play hard” became a motto for medical school. The days of studying were long and arduous, but about once a week we all let loose and had great fun. There were parties, concerts, trips to the beach and powderpuff football games. You met some of the most unique and interesting people you would find throughout your life, and you became unimaginably close through the shared experiences of learning about life and death.
Clinical rotations began, and although it appeared trivial to your superiors, you couldn’t contain your excitement to wear your “short” white coat and shiny new stethoscope. Your pockets were weighed down with handbooks, cheat sheets, notes and phone numbers (the peripheral brain of the smartphone was not yet available).
You felt responsible for everything that happened to your patient on rounds and didn’t want to make any mistakes. Ownership of your patients was an important skill your residents would teach you. Each rotation through different specialties in medicine was like walking into the first day in a new school where you had to learn the landscape as quickly as possible. You came to medical school thinking you already decided your specialty but found it was easy to get pulled into each rotation as every field had something to love. The satisfaction of a successful surgery was exhilarating, yet the human brain and neurology was fascinating. It was gratifying to find the missing piece to the puzzle when examining a radiology study that helped the physician team understand the origin of the ill patient presentation. The high of delivering a baby and handing him off to his mother for the first time could also not be replaced.
Ultimately, you had to make a choice. One that would affect the rest of your life. Choosing the specialty was the hard part and would affect not only your life, but your entire family’s (and future family’s) lives. Next would come four difficult, yet transformative years where you would spend all your waking hours with fellow residents in a hospital. The pressure was on to pick well, and in a location where you would get the best training, make contacts, and consider future employment. Could you live in this area of the country? Once you finally picked and ranked your residency programs, it was out of your hands. Now you had to hope they felt the same way about you and that you would be a “match.”
Once your list was submitted, there was nothing to do but wait and hope for the best. Until that fateful day at 1 p.m., you had no idea where you would be living for the next four years. It could be Baltimore, MD, Durham, NC, Washington DC, or even Honolulu, HI. Your spouse also waited anxiously as this would be a move you were doing together and of course their job would be affected too.
The anxiety surrounding the event of Match Day was palpable around campus for weeks. Fellow medical students prepared the lecture auditorium for the big event by making props and posters for the chosen theme of Heroes and Villains. All medical schools handle this event in different ways, but a celebration and costume party felt like the perfect way to find out where everyone would be going for the next 3 to 4 years of our lives. Every single person in the medical school class dressed up in the most elaborate of costumes. Families attended, as they had become friends as were a significant part of the journey and this day impacted everyone.
One by one, students were called to the stage to receive a sealed, white envelope holding the destination of the next phase of their lives. Once all 100+ students received their envelopes, and were again seated, you simultaneously opened them together. Your trembling hands couldn’t get it open fast enough. Excited yelling, crying, laughter, and hugs enveloped the room. Classmates and friends ran around to greet each other and find out where life would be taking everyone next. Never had you experienced such energy in one room. It was one of the most memorable moments of your life. It was the perfect ending to the medical school experience and segue to the next adventure.
Valerie A. Jones is a obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at OB Doctor Mom.
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