Reflecting after the first year of medical school

I left the library at 10 p.m. the night before the last exam of my first year of med school. As I hopped on my bike, I took comfort in my typical pre-test refrain: I’m done studying. I did everything I could. Of course, I’m not really done studying: I still have three years of school left packed with end-of-block finals, end-of-rotation exams, and the behemoths of the medical testing world, the national licensing examinations called Step. I haven’t even taken the first Step, but biking home that night, I realized that I’ve taken a major leap in the past ten months.

In medical school, doing “everything I could” is both more and less than ever before. The more: I can spend more hours with more resources learning more than I thought possible. I’m stunned by how much medical lingo I’ve picked up, how many drug names I’ve memorized, and how many different diseases I understand. The less: There’s never enough time to learn the material, to understand the physiology and pathology in full. I certainly know a whole lot more than I did when I first started here, but I’ve also become acutely aware of how much I don’t know and how much I have left to learn.

I head into this summer break — the last of my educational years — taking stock of the “more.” After ten months of juggling school and extracurriculars while trying to be a good friend, partner, sister, and child, it’s easy for me to feel like I fell short, to focus on the things I could’ve and should’ve done. I should’ve been there for my brother’s graduation. I could’ve hammered out my studying tactics a little earlier in the quarter. I should’ve checked in with my friends more, said yes to every opportunity to be with them. I could’ve flown home when my relative got sick. I could’ve and should’ve, but at the same time, I need to remind myself of how much I’ve accomplished and of how much I handled to the best of my ability. I need to take some pride in my first giant leap into the medical world — where I landed firmly on my feet.

This year I learned a lot of science: anatomy, biochemistry, immunology, microbiology, embryology, histology, and more. I also learned how to enter a patient’s room with confidence, a strong handshake, and a gentle touch. I learned how to hear the murmurs and gallops of a sick heart. I grew more comfortable asking sensitive, deeply personal questions of total strangers. I acquired new ways of listening, moving, and connecting.

In addition to the required curriculum, I rounded out my education. I took courses in creative writing, anthropology, bioethics, and medical humanities. I re-read Frankenstein after having dissected a body myself. I went to art exhibits, student-run concerts, and attended writing retreats. I tried my hand at policy writing, and participated in the California Medical Association’s advocacy day in Sacramento and the American Medical Association’s annual meeting in Chicago. Along the way, I also reflected on my experiences.

I probably could’ve done more and I could’ve done it all better, but I did enough. For now, that’s the most I can ask of myself.

I hope that my classmates and other first-year pre-clinical students step back a bit this summer. If, like me, you’re prone to focusing on the endless possibilities for improvement or the opportunities you should have seized, just pause for a moment and look at how far you’ve come. Sure, there’s still a long road ahead, but the first year of medical school is done. I hope you take pride in your accomplishments and enjoy the break you have earned. Perhaps next year we can do even more, but for now, we did everything we could.

Orly Farber is a medical student who blogs at Scope, where this article originally appeared.

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