doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Tag: textbook

No regrets

I started college as a biology major, pre-med. I changed my major to journalism after taking an introductory writing class — a course that changed the course of my life. Over the last few years, since coming full circle and deciding to pursue medicine after all, I’ve been asked many times whether I wish I’d stuck with pre-med in college. After all, if I had, I’d be a full-fledged physician by now rather than a lowly medical student.


That’s my unwavering answer.

I changed my major back in 2000 in part because I fell in love with writing, and in part because I wasn’t committed to the idea of four years of medical school followed by another three or four of residency. And don’t forget the major debt — a scary prospect for a 19-year-old.

It took me some 15 years to make my way to medical school. But that was the right timeline for me, for me to fully realize that this is what I want in my life, for me to be ready. I wouldn’t change any of it because I wasn’t ready back then. And those 15 years brought all kinds of adventures of their own — all of which provide me with a rich set of life experiences to draw upon as I make my way in my new career. In unexpected moments, those events, and the lessons I learned from them, brighten the path in front of me.

One of those moments occurred during our last unit, where we learned about rheumatology and the musculoskeletal system. Part of the curriculum involved learning various physical exam maneuvers to test for musculoskeletal problems. We had lectures, then brief, proctored practice sessions to learn how to test for rotator cuff tears, for example, or carpal tunnel syndrome. Some maneuvers were easier than others. And while they all made sense while I was sitting in the room surrounded by our orthopaedist-teachers, when I got home, the details of the trickier exams (especially for ACL and meniscus problems in the knee) had faded.

You never know when the past will come back to help you.

You never know when the past will come back to help you.

My past life in publishing, though, offered an answer. The year before I started medical school, I worked for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). AAOS is the medical society for orthopaedic surgeons, and also publishes orthopaedic books. When I left, I was graciously given a copy of Essentials of Musculoskeletal Care 5, a book on general musculoskeletal problems actually directed at non-surgeons — primary care physicians, nurse practitioners, physical therapists, residents, medical students, and others. Aside from hunderds of pages of expertly written text, the book includes more than 200 video demonstrations of exam maneuvers and procedures. So rather than turn to YouTube for  videos of unknown origin, I had a trustworthy source. And when I practiced the manuevers with my classmates, the videos were something I could share with them, too.

Sure, I could have bought the book. But I’m a broke medical student, and it’s really not in my budget right now. It’s part of the package of my past life, a past life that informs and enhances my current one. And while it might have taken me longer to get here, that time certainly wasn’t wasted.

This Book’s a Keeper

Reading immunology on the front porch on a beautiful day is rather pleasant.

A few days ago, I wrote about some books I *might* be using during my first year in medical school. I already know this one is a keeper: How the Immune System Works, by Lauren Sompayrac (Wiley-Blackwell).

Before I talk about this book, let me take a step back. It’s said (by people more knowledgeable than I am) that in addition to the required basic science classes in college, there are three upper-division courses that may help you in medical school: genetics, biochemistry, and immunology. I’ve taken genetics and biochemistry, and done well in both. But immunology is a world I know nothing about. To put it bluntly: I didn’t know my neutrophils from my natural killer cells (which is embarrassing, if you know anything about the subject).

Enter Lauren Sompayrac’s book, which is a “big picture” view of immuno designed to prepare you for more a complex course by showing how parts of the immune system act and interact at a very basic level. At only 132 pages of actual chapter material, it’s a short read. The writing is entertaining, with plenty of analogies and quips thrown in. From now on, when I think of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) – a molecule that essentially serves as a billboard to tell what’s going on either inside or outside the cell it’s attached to – I will think of a hot dog bun. (Yes, there is a photo of a hot dog bun in the book. It works.) There are also plenty of astounding facts too which keep me engaged with the general topic. (Did you know that the area covered by the mucous membranes lining our digestive, respiratory, and reporductive tracts – part of our body’s perimeter that needs defended – measures about 400 square meters? That’s two tennis courts! Immune cells have to patrol all that!)

My goal isn’t to master the immune system before medical school. That’s what medical school is for. But since I have exactly zero background in this, I want to develop a basic understanding of the players before I’m expected to know the whole playbook.