I was in my first year of medical school, back when I still thought I was an extrovert.
I was taking an anatomy exam, which was set up such that different muscles, bones, nerves, and blood vessels were pinned on cadavers. Students rotated through each station with 45 seconds to identify each pin, and at the end we had ten minutes to go back and check the pins that were difficult to identify. When the last buzz sounded telling us we had come to those ten minutes, I handed in my exam as everyone else rushed to check the difficult pins. I walked out alone.
After four exams over four days, and barely five hours of sleep a night, I knew I had passed this exam – and I knew I needed to get out of there. I opened the door to leave the building, and my face was shocked by the strength of sunlight hitting my face after days of fluorescent bulbs. I sneezed.
There was going to be a party in the student lounge, but I headed in the opposite direction. I got to my car, a convertible Volkswagen bug that was my little bubble of home away from home, and closed my eyes for a few minutes. I felt like a log tumbling through white river rapids, barely keeping any part of myself above water. Then I turned the engine on and drove to church. It was time to ground myself again.
I walked in to the beautiful mosaic images, stained glass windows, and rows of pews. The musty smell of candles cradled me like a hug from my grandmother. A noon service was going on in the side chapel, and a priest from an entirely different denomination invited anyone to participate. I took the invitation, remembering what it felt like to sit in peace without a timer.
When I got home I put on sweatpants, curled up in bed and watched a cheesy romantic comedy. My housemate called when I was about halfway through my movie. Embarrassment permeating his voice as he told me that he and my other housemate, both fellow first year medical students, had had too much to drink at the party. They needed to be picked up.
I hung up the phone. I closed my eyes and braced myself for the rest of the day. I knew this would be my only moment alone because once I picked up the boys, we would be preparing to host a holiday party and then I would be up late finishing my contributions to a paper for publication. Feeling a little guilty, but not guilty enough to not do it, I lay down and watched another five minutes of my movie…
Stanford Medicine Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category.
Natalia Birgisson is a third-year medical student at Stanford University. She recently completed a year off writing her first novel, described on her site. She can be followed on Twitter at @BirgissonRx.