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The highs and lows of medicine

The highs and lows of medicinePhilip Brooks tells the truth about life as a medical student – take a look and find out what you can expect from your time at university.

My (non-medic) housemate asked me to compose a list of good and bad things about life as a medic. She also asked me to compose a list of potential interview questions. Her cousin, Emily, has applied to study medicine and is now tapping every possible source of medical information.

I remember the time well. In my sixth form, the medics-to-be would hunt in packs for prized beasts known as ‘work experience’ or ‘interview practice’. Otherwise right minded 18-year-olds would positively queue up to wipe the backsides of senile octogenarians in nursing homes across the county.

I must admit, I pitied Emily's situation and decided to pen the lists as requested. The list of interview questions was quite easy. I included all the usual suspects: ‘Why medicine?’; ‘If you want to help people, then why aren't you doing nursing?’ and ‘Where do you think medicine is going as we approach the new millennium?’ I found it somewhat harder to compose the second list. What are the good and bad things about being a medic?

Well, I had just returned from a peripheral hospital attachment; the 170km round trip was certainly a bad thing. The teaching out there was, however, brilliant. You felt as if you were a part of the team, not just someone getting in the way; that was certainly a good thing. I suppose that, as with all things in life, studying medicine is a mixture of the fair and the foul.

Working with patients

At times I cannot stand what medicine does to patients. I attended a patient with a cardiac arrest last week while on call with my firm. I looked at Enid, the 80 year old woman lying on the bed in front of me; her chest was exposed and bruised. With her eyes still open, her skin cyanosed, and the endotracheal tube still in place, the time of death was called. I couldn't help thinking that she should have been left to slip away peacefully.

Sometimes medicine has the ability to make you feel awful. I remember, on the other hand, spending some time with a relatively young patient and his wife. The medical details of the case are not important, but, sadly, the young man died. His wife sent a card to say thank you for everything done for Mark. She added a note on the bottom to thank me for the time that I had spent with her and Mark. As far I was concerned, I had done nothing, but the card made me feel like a million dollars. Death was the outcome in both cases, but sometimes medicine can be amazing.

Student life

In the same way, medical school itself can be the best and the worst time of your life. I cannot think of any other circumstance where 200 people are caged up together for five years in such a pressured atmosphere. You can't break wind without it appearing in the Medical Society's newsletter, and if you do anything more memorable - such as fainting in the dissection room or vomiting in an operating theatre - you are socially branded until you qualify. When released, you're given a bleeper, the prefix "Dr," and the responsibility of treating the sick.

Medical school can be phenomenal. You meet amazing people with whom you will stay lifelong friends; you may even marry one of them. You go to mad parties, mix vodka martinis in your mouth, and dance like a lunatic at 3am. You then turn up for a rectal bleeding clinic at 8.30 the following morning. You hear rumours about yourself in the canteen that have as much truth to them as a 'Sunday Sport' exclusive. It’s a very intense atmosphere, which can lead to great friends and worse enemies.

In the end I couldn't write the list; it seemed a pointless thing to do. Medical school, like anything you devote energy to, is what you make it. There will be boring lectures, and there will be lectures that make you want to stand up and cheer. There will be days when you'll want to run home, and there will be days when you'll not want the sun to set. Every now and then you'll have a day when you'll be the most fantastic medic in the whole world, and then the day after you'll feel as accepted and as cherished as a full commode. You have to take the rough with the smooth, helped by some good friends watching over you. If you can cope with the Enids and Marks, the bedpans and the bouquets, the good days and the bad, then you'll be OK.

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