10/30/2015

Stethoscopes and scrubs: Is med school for you?

by  Kara Ortiga
Art by Shy Cabajar
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In kindergarten, our teachers told us to complete the sentence: “When I grow up, I want to be a (blank).” We had to read those answers out loud to a crowd of beaming parents during our commencement ceremony, from kinder to grade school.

My answer shifted constantly from painter to lawyer and back again — whichever sounded cooler. But my best friend Mary had always known: she was going to be a doctor. She was sure of it when we were four years old. She was sure of it when she graduated the top of her college in UP Manila, as she delivered her valedictorian speech. Of the two of us, she was always the more scholarly one, an honor student all her life, the teachers’ favorite. While I was the frivolous other, excelling only in dramatic monologues and notorious for being on the it-list of “noisy girls.”

Today, Mary just finished her fourth year in medical school. Her crazy stories of assisting childbirth and sewing stitches on open wounds are the pretty bits of her school life, because they’re entertaining. The not-so-pretty stories are the overwhelming emotional, physical and mental requirements of the job. Now, she tells me she worries that this medicine thing might not be for her. But we deduce that it’s only the niggling uncertainty that is irksome to her. The questions that haunt us all when we’re shit tired at 4 a.m. — “Why am I doing this again?” — which happens to the best of us, really, but I imagine must be harder for someone who was so sure of her path since kindergarten.

I wonder if medicine is something that a person can ever be fully prepared for.

Before pursuing medical school, maybe motivation is something that should seriously be thought through. Because these motivations are what will keep you going when you’re spent from doing 24 hours of duty at the hospital, and when you have to stop hanging out with your high school friends because sleep is a more heavenly option.

Two med students fresh out of clerkship at the UP Philippine General Hospital find time to sit with me and fill me in on some of the things that an aspiring medical student should think about.

Hannah Co went to a Chinese private school in Manila, and would spend a lot of her childhood excelling in the sciences. She is a 2007 Carlos Palanca award-winning writer for an essay entitled “Adaptability.” And JC Malabad is part of a cultural group called the Ibanag, which comes from a small town in the northern part of Isabela where there are no 7-Elevens or ATM machines. He passed med school in UP even before his parents could find the money to fund it. He is a DOST scholar. Where he comes from, doctors are hailed like politicians.

Dear Aspiring Med School Student: First things first. You need to have the brains.

Hannah Co: The first three years of med school are very book-based. You study a lot and take exams, and you are tested on the stuff that you know. Generally, it doesn’t matter where you are, if you want to go to med school, you have to be pretty studious.
JC Malabad: Iba kasi yung demand ng med school. Unlike in college where you can study at your own pace, sa med school, you have no choice but to study. Parang every day after school, pag uwi mo, mag-aaral ka pa rin. Sabi ko nga nung mga first few years ko, ayaw ko ng buhay na puro aral lang talaga. So I questioned before kung ano ba saysay ng buhay ko. But it’s a mindset. There’s a purpose as to why you’re supposed to do all of that.

People’s lives are in your hands. But you also need to have the brawn.

Hannah: When you think of medicine, you think it’s all about what’s inside your brain. But it’s not enough to be smart. Lots of people who quit are really smart, and can handle the mental work. But it’s a lot more practical than that.
JC: It’s a very physical job when you start your clerkship. Lalakad-lakad ka, you get specimens from your patients, you monitor.
Hannah: They test you on how well you can deal with stress, how well you can deal with patients, and how long you can last on little sleep. There are also a lot of interpersonal skills involved. Especially if you’re here in the Philippines, it’s important for you to do social work, because it’s all about empathy.

You will have to sacrifice a lot of time.

Hannah: I think the most difficult sacrifice I’ve had to make this year would be all the time I spent away from my family. I wish somebody had told me how much time it would take from your life. If you want to do a lot when you’re young, it’s hard to do them. You either have to let them go, or find a way to make it work.
JC:  You adapt as you go along. Yun ang namimiss ko ngayon, yung weekends ko. Ikaw nalang mag singit ng social life mo, bahala ka.
Learn how to deal with harsh mistakes.
Hannah: There are many kinds of mistakes. There are mistakes that no one notices, and then there are catastrophic mistakes. And it’s really hard to go through those.
JC: When you’re treating patients already, buhay na talaga ang hawak mo eh. Ang laki ng pressure nun, knowing na patient na yung naapektuhan. It makes it harder to make mistakes. But they say mistakes are a part of training, and I believe that too.

Lastly, always remind yourself why you’re in it.

JC: Being a doctor started out as a material ambition for me. Because people in my hometown regard doctors so highly, kasi onti lang sila. But I realized that there’s more to being a doctor than the elegance of it all. It’s about being an instrument to bring healing to people, whether your capabilities are small or big.
Hannah: I wasn’t totally sure if I was going to study medicine in the beginning. But after four years of studying biology, and spending summers working in the research lab in St. Luke’s, it was then that I decided that maybe medicine was for me. It never occurred to me to quit. Like sometimes I joke about it — like maybe if I worked in a bank, I wouldn’t have to deal with all the pee and poo and blood. But you have to have a goal in mind. You have to always remind yourself why you decided to go into this.

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