Lessons from the student center

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Note: This post was written 5/29/2010, while I was on a plane on my way to Hawaii. I had no Internet access on the Big Island, so I am just now posting this.

Large “Red Eye” (coffee plus a shot of espresso), room for cream. That’s my usual order at Descartes Coffee, the coffee stand in the University of Illinois at Chicago Student Center. Just across Wolcott Street from the Medical Sciences Building where the lab is located, the Student Center is a hopping spot at lunchtime for medical students and other UIC staff and faculty. I don’t usually talk to anyone there – other than Eva, who staffs the Descartes stand – I just watch, and listen.

You can tell a lot about a person at UIC by what he or she wears. White coats, for example, inside the lab building suggest a researcher or PhD student. The same coats worn outside the lab usually denote medical students (short coats), residents (medium length coats) or attendings (long coats). A stethoscope around someone’s neck is a dead giveaway — definitely the medical variety.

I visually size up the length of someone’s coat, try to catch what his or her sleeve patch says (“House Staff,” for example, or “Medical Student”). Without drawing attention to myself, I try to lean in to hear what the people at the next table are talking about — an impossible gross anatomy exam? A grueling surgical rotation? A demanding attending?

People often complain over lunch (which, in the Student Center, usually consists of a Subway sandwich), griping about this or that to fellow students or colleagues. But I soak it in. I dream of the day when I will be in those shoes, groaning about that exam, rotation, or attending. I probably won’t think so at the time, but from where I am now, being able to complain about such things seems like a privilege.

OK, maybe that sounds stupid, and Pollyannish. Although really, when it comes down to it, I’m not exactly your sunny optimist type. But when you think about it, just getting into medical school is a long haul. And once I get there — and I will get there — I do not plan to take it for granted.