doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Month: September, 2015

My Priorities

list also available in candied format

Since starting medical school, the word “priority” has taken on a whole new meaning, on so many levels.

I’m a morning person, have been for years. Consequently, some of my best brain time occurs before lunch. Nearly all of our lectures are also before lunch. As someone who has always gone to class, missing lecture wasn’t initially on my radar. But I quickly realized that sitting (passively) in a lecture during my mental peak was not the best use of my day. So I use morning and early afternoon for active studying on my own, unless there are mandatory sessions. Watching the other nonmandatory lectures—which are videotaped and available to us 24-7 online—happens late afternoon or evening. I’ve prioritized my time and my use of mental energy in a way that works best for me.

And then there are my lists. I love making to-do lists. (As an aside, I highly recommend the Evernote app for Mac, iOS, or Android. It allows you to create lists with a digital “checkbox” next to your items. You can “check off” this box with a click of the mouse. Highly satisfying, let me tell you. And no more scribbly papers or post-its haphazardly strewn across your desk. At least, fewer of them.) In days gone by, I would frequently complete all the items on my to-do list. These days, I’m lucky if I finish half. I had to develop a strategy to make sure the essentials got done, and nothing critical fell through the cracks. So I’ve learned to group my items into categories. There is a list of “places to be.” There are morning, afternoon, and evening must-dos. There are miscellaneous items that would be great to work on if I have time. (Those frequently get shuffled to another day.) There are also lighter activities that I know I can do when I have less energy, like place my Amazon Pantry order or write simple e-mails. At the end of the day, I make sure the fires are put out. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that I don’t finish my to-do lists anymore. Unless, of course, I edit the list at the end of the day to cut and paste things I didn’t finish onto another day’s to-do list. Sometimes I do this. And I let myself, because I’ve decided that if looking at a completed list relaxes me, it’s really ok.

Even before I started medical school, I knew it was impossible to learn every detail on every syllabus of every course. At some point, especially as an exam draws near, I have to decide: what to study, and what to let go. Because if I don’t make that choice, I’ll fall down a never-ending rabbit hole. Medical school is not just about learning—it’s about learning what to learn.

But no matter how much there is to learn, no matter how many lectures are left to watch or muscles to study or to-do list items still unchecked, I remain a priority. My well-being, that is. I take frequent walks, cook lots of vegetables, and sleep as regularly as is possible while living on a corner that’s constantly noisy, either from traffic or construction. I also spend time with other people who remind me that I am a human being, not a medical student machine.

I do my best. That’s my priority.


Exploring NYC: The Brooklyn Bridge

Beautiful day crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. It was surprisingly inexpensive.

As much as I’m glad to be a medical student, the intensity of this life means that it’s important to escape from time to time. Yesterday, two classmates and I did one of the iconic New York activities in walking the Brooklyn Bridge. It was incredible! A feat of architecture and lovely to behold. Here are some pictures we took. Thanks to Kirsten Salline and Lauren Antrim for their company, and Lauren taking the photos.


After Week 3: Observations and Thoughts

I used to hate grocery shopping. It took an emergency—like running out of half & half for my coffee—to get me to half-heartedly shove a cart around the store. And doing the dishes? Forget it! I’d let them pile a mile high. In the last month, I’ve realized that medical school changes everything. (Well, almost everything.) Grocery shopping is now a welcome break from studying, a reason to stretch my legs and enjoy some fresh (or maybe not-so-fresh) New York City air. It’s the same with dishes. Not to mention that living in a single room, there is just simply less space to spread out your mess. And for me visible mess = visceral stress. So I keep my little living space very neat and tidy. Anyone who’s ever lived with me would be shocked.

Here are some more observations I’ve made about my life as a first-year medical student on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. These are thoughts about me, medical school, and city life, as well as the intersection of these and other life threads. In no particular order, here we go …

You get used to the horns. Sort of. NYC traffic is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and this is coming from a girl who (in Chicago) would be called a “city driver.” Non-city drivers might add less-than-nice epithets to that description. But in Chicago, you use your horn judiciously. In NYC on the other hand, horns are to traffic what commas are to sentences—periodic and normal punctuation. I think some drivers must honk out of habit, not even when anything is wrong. The first couple of weeks I was here, my heart would jump at each honk. They’re loud when you’re a pedestrian! Now they’ve begun to blend in, just part of the backdrop of city life. (A side note: earplugs are a HUGE help when sleeping here because these noises continue all night long. And living next to the hospital we get not only cars honking but ambulances whining at 2 a.m.)

New York City is insanely expensive. Everybody knows that. But I now believe that people have no idea what that really means until they try to live here. For example, I went grocery shopping today (yay! break! fun!). Yes, I am now one of those city people who walks around with a push-cart. It’s actually kind of fun, it makes me feel like I belong here. I spent $91.85 for this week’s groceries. For ONE person. That’s crazy. Everything costs more here. Sometimes it’s a nickel or a dime, sometimes $1 or $2. But it quickly adds up. The most outrageous item I saw today was a 24-oz jar of marinara sauce that cost upwards $10. For that much, I’ll just go to an Italian restaurant, thank you very much.

I am … happy. Some of you know that I am not fond of the word “happy.” I think it’s overused in our society, and has lost its meaning. So when I say “I am happy,” that really means something. “Happy” to me means a sense of contentment, belonging, satisfaction, and joy. Is medical school hard? Of course. But would I rather be doing anything else? Hell no. This is where I’m meant to be. Being here, I feel “happier” than I have in years. Which is wonderful, because the last few years have brought with them a lot of sadness and loss for me.  “Happy” is a nice change.

My background in journalism helps even more than I expected. In a part of our curriculum called “Patient Care & Physicianship,” we’re learning the intricacies of the medical interview. The subject matter is different, obviously, than interviewing a politician or an artist. But when you break it down, the medical interview is really an organized series of who-what-where-when-why-how questions combined with intense observation and genuine empathy. The first time I tried it was awkward. I tried too hard, thought too much. The second time, I sat down, relaxed, stopped thinking, and let the conversation flow. Occasionally I glanced back at the list of required follow-up items. But I found that by just talking, I got much of that information naturally. I let my journalism instincts kick in. It was like … riding a bicycle.

I love a good story. This might seem obvious from my journalism background—in fact the concept that everyone has a story is what drew me to my first career. I wasn’t expecting this reaction to be so strong though. But already, I find myself drawn to people’s stories, and more specifically to patients‘ stories. I want to know not just what hurts, why, and how can I fix it, but other more human things … what is your family life like? do you have kids, or take care of your elderly parents? what do you do for a living? and so on. It’s not about being nosy. Part of it is understanding that these sorts of things have a bearing on a patient’s physical and mental health. Part of it is getting to know the patient as a person, and not a set of signs and symptoms.

Faculty here at Weill Cornell are amazing. It seems that everyone is willing to meet with you to discuss career options, let you shadow, offer advice, etc. Not only are they willing, but they enjoy the opportunity to do so. They value their roles as educators and mentors—something that is invaluable to me as a medical student. I feel incredibly supported. I know that for any question or concern I have, I merely have to ask around and someone will be able to help me find an answer.

I am tired all the time. Talking to other former and current medical students, this is just part of the reality. I’m getting used to it. (And learning to sleep in a little on the weekends.)

Not a single one of my major fears about coming here have come true. For example, I wasted a lot of energy being fearful about what the living situation would be like (especially the grocery/cooking situation) and whether I would connect with my fellow students. In reality, things have turned out better than I could have hoped for.

In summary: medical school is tough. It’s exhausting. But it’s also incredibly rewarding, both in learning new concepts and in working with patients. I fully believe that being here at Weill Cornell, and living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I’m in exactly the right place, with exactly the right people (both faculty and students). As my anatomy professor, Dr. Mtui, would say: “Life is good.”