Published by
Stanford Medicine

Category

SMS Unplugged

Medical Education, SMS Unplugged

Why “looking dumb” in medical school isn’t such a bad thing

Why “looking dumb” in medical school isn’t such a bad thing

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

hands in air - longerIf I had to choose one theme that has stood out in the first weeks of medical school, it would be this: questions, questions, and more questions. In the first class on our first day of medical school, our professor set the tone by laying down the requirement that we ask a minimum of ten questions before the lecture was over. Based on my experience in large undergraduate lectures, where questions were as rare as rain in Palo Alto, I naively thought this would be a challenge for us. To my surprise, we met the challenge and probably asked at least twenty questions in that first class alone.

This first day set the tone for the rest of our time together so far, and my class has quickly gained a reputation among the faculty for the volume of questions that we ask. It’s a common occurrence for a lecturer to be moving along smoothly, only to look up and see four or five hands in the air, of people waiting patiently to ask for clarifications, pose hypothetical situations, or simply admit that the last lecture slide was way too confusing. More than one class session has been derailed and run out of time because of our frequent interruptions. One of our professors memorably poked fun at us by hinting – not very subtly – that our class had no problem with “looking dumb” in front of our peers.

Given the amount of important information and interesting ideas that I’ve learned through my classmates’ questions, I’ve quickly come to feel that learning how to ask questions is an important part of my early medical training. However, this can be a difficult thing. By asking a question in public, you’re more or less admitting to everybody in the room that you didn’t know the answer; that you needed help from somebody else to get the information. Only certain learning environments – namely, with a close group of non-judgmental peers and willing professors – are conducive to this.

With that in mind, what will happen with our class as we move through our medical training? I’m hopeful that our willingness to ask questions will continue, along with the receptiveness of our teachers and mentors. As first-year medical students, we’re not expected to have a vast medical knowledge yet, so admitting “I don’t know” is relatively easy. But what will happen in a few years, when we reach the clinics and are expected to be able to put the knowledge from our first two years to use? Or more importantly, what will happen when we are fully trained physicians, and our patients expect us to have all the answers? When we don’t have the answers, will we be as willing to ask for help as we are now? As a patient, I would certainly hope that my physician would be willing to ask the right questions when needed. Because of this, I think our class can and should aspire to keeping the flood of questions coming.

Nathaniel Fleming is a first-year medical student and a native Oregonian. His interests include health policy and clinical research.

Image by Kaz

Obesity, Pediatrics, Public Health, SMS Unplugged

When the wheels on the bus (don’t) go round: Driving the spread of local health programs

When the wheels on the bus (don't) go round: Driving the spread of local health programs

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

family-outing-421653_640

A few years ago, I was doing a summer internship in which I looked at health outcomes for hospitalized patients. I sat in an office and read about patients with issues like high blood pressure and cholesterol. At a certain point, I realized that the reports on their outcomes were interesting, but the real solution to the problems I was studying was happening outside my window. My window overlooked a park, where kids would run around all day until they were exhausted. And it got me thinking that if all kids were as active as those ones, there would a lot fewer reports for me to read.

So last year, I worked with several medical and law students to design a county-level childhood obesity prevention policy. The need for such programs is self-explanatory: More than one third of children in the U.S. are overweight or obese. By the time people reach adulthood, that proportion goes up to two thirds. By creating a team of both medical and law students, we hoped to come up with approaches that achieved the goal of improving health, and did so in a practical and implementable way.

Over the course of several months, we analyzed dozens of programs that have been used to bring down childhood obesity rates in various communities across the country. The programs ranged from well-known approaches (e.g. a soda tax or menu calorie counts) to some more obscure ones. My personal favorite was the “Walking School Bus” (WSB). Think about how your parents used to tell you that things were tougher in their day when they had to walk to school (in the snow, going uphill, barefoot, etc.). The goal of a WSB is to bring that world back. The catch is that parents/adults walk along a predetermined “bus” route, pick up kids along the way, and then walk them to school. Kids get a supervised walk that allows them to get some exercise every day.

Case studies, and one meta-analysis, suggest that WSBs are an effective way to increase the amount of exercise kids get. But odds are, you’ve never heard about them before. Neither have most school officials, local politicians, and others in a position to take action on childhood obesity. That’s because WSBs are not widely used. This realization led me to an interesting question: Which factors make a local program or intervention spread to other communities? What does it take to turn a single success story into a widespread strategy?

These are hardly new questions. Every business or non-profit that plans to scale up considers it. Atul Gawande, MD, attempted to figure out why certain medical interventions spread in a New Yorker article last year. Whether you’re talking about social programs, technology, or just an idea, the question remains. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but my work reviewing obesity prevention policies did lead me to a few conclusions about the spread of local programs.

First, success is necessary but not sufficient for a program’s spread. Just because it proves to be successful does not mean anyone else will adopt it. WSBs were one example. Granted, WSBs are not adaptable to every community – they require schools to be within walking distance and rely on good weather. But the same story is true for other approaches. For instance, joint-use agreements are a strategy where schools open up their facilities (e.g. outdoor fields, basketball courts, etc.) after school hours to give children and families access to recreational space. Despite a correlation between these agreements and better health outcomes, they remain in limited use in many of the communities where recreational space is most lacking.

So if success doesn’t lead to a program’s spread, what does? I believe one factor is the involvement and enthusiasm of multiple stakeholders, potentially including local government, businesses, school administrators, and involved community members. A second factor is the development of measurable and achievable goals. It is nearly impossible to see incremental changes in health outcomes, so programs designed to change health must establish metrics that can demonstrate progress.

The list of lessons from our survey of local programs goes on, but the biggest takeaway is clear. Problems in health care require not only a solution, but successful execution.

Akhilesh Pathipati is a second-year medical student at Stanford. He is interested in issues in health-care delivery.

Image by EME

Medical Education, SMS Unplugged

Escaping the medical school bubble

Escaping the medical school bubble

Hamsika at Castle Rock

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

A few months ago, I read the following quote: “Don’t live the same year 75 times and call it a life.” For some reason, this quote got to me. This year is my 18th consecutive year as a student, and there are too many days that seem the same, where I’m caught in the tasks and obligations of school and extracurriculars and forget to take time out of the day just for myself.

Fortunately, I’m surrounded by classmates who are very much aware of the bubble but also skilled at disconnecting from the med school busyness. A couple weeks ago, I took a leaf out of their book, woke up at 5:30 AM, and joined four of my fellow classmates for a hiking trip at Castle Rock State Park.

Castle Rock is about a 45-minute drive from Stanford and filled with beautiful redwoods, moss-covered trees, and stunning views. Much of the group had to be back on campus at 1 PM for meetings and such (can’t escape the bubble forever!) so we chose to do a ~6-mile hike, giving us time to pause along the way whenever we felt like it.

There were moments when all of us were quiet, relishing the moist, woody smell of the forest and appreciating the absolute silence that surrounded us. Of course, most of the time, we were chatting it up. Despite the fact that all of us are together almost every day, taking the same classes and working together on group presentations that accompany our coursework, it felt like we hadn’t really talked in ages! During our three-hour hike, we bonded over so many different topics – where we wanted to live when we graduated from medical school, things we’ve struggled with this past year, our families, and so much more.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had a chance to escape into the wilderness with classmates. Last year, med school kicked off with a pre-orientation camping/backpacking trip called SWEAT (Stanford Wilderness Experience Active (Orientation) Trip). SWEAT was a 4-day, 3-night adventure, and, like this hike, was an incredible bonding experience – one that even included a few bear sightings.

The point of this entry is to 1) make it seem like I have a life outside of med school (Kidding! Kind of…), and 2) emphasize how important it is to take the time to do things you love and enjoy. One of the things I struggled the most with – both when I went to college and when I came to med school – was figuring out how I could incorporate the things I’ve always loved doing – dance, drawing, reading, etc. – into a life filled with classes, deadlines, and meetings. While the classes will soon come to an end, the deadlines and meetings and obligations certainly won’t. And that’s when I’ll make a conscious effort to traipse off to a dance class, a bookstore, or a hiking spot like Castle Rock.

Hamsika Chandrasekar is a second-year student at Stanford’s medical school. She has an interest in medical education and pediatrics.

Photo courtesy of Hamsika Chandrasekar

Ebola, Global Health, Infectious Disease, Patient Care, SMS Unplugged

The hand-sanitizer dilemma: My experiences treating patients in Uganda

The hand-sanitizer dilemma: My experiences treating patients in Uganda

Ugandan hospital - smallSMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

A thick green glob landed on my scrub top at the same time that the first drop of sweat rolled down the small of my back. I tried not to grimace and discretely walked over to the hand-sanitizer dispenser. But like every other hand sanitizer I had tried, this one was empty. Yesterday I had also discovered that the only bathroom in the hospital had no toilet paper. It was 7 AM, and I would be using my pocket toilet-paper stash to clean off sputum from the hacking patient that apparently all the doctors knew to avoid standing in front of. The day was off to a good start.

How, I wondered as we continued rounding, did doctors respond to this dilemma – having to care for patients without being able to fully protect themselves – when they were in health centers treating Ebola. I tried not to think about what I would tell my parents if I developed rare infectious symptoms in a few days. We were in Uganda, countries away from the Ebola outbreak, but there were still plenty of infectious agents we could and probably were exposing ourselves to.

Just as I was wracking my brain for the names of the bacteria and viruses that might be deadly, I noticed one of the doctors rest his hand on a patient’s shoulder. And it dawned on me that the real dilemma was not about what I, who had access to the best medical care, might pick up, but rather about what I might pass from patient to patient.

It’s ironic that in the U.S., patients have to remind doctors to reach out and touch their shoulder or hand at an appropriate time – to make patients feel that the doctor connects with them on a human level. Yet here in Uganda, the  doctors know when to reach out to their patients, they know how to talk to the patient’s family. My clinical-skills professors would love to see this.

But if the hand-sanitizer dispenser was empty for me, it was empty for the  Ugandan doctors as well. We were told as first-year medical students that we would fail our “Practice of Medicine” final if we forgot to sanitize our  hands upon entering our standardized patient’s room. So what were we to do when we had more than twenty patients in one room, each with at least two family members, and no hand sanitizer for anyone? How many of these dozens  of people were walking around with my hacking patient’s sputum on them as  well?

The doctors certainly could be spreading infectious agents. But given the proximity of patients on the wards, those very same infectious agents had likely already been spread between the patients overnight – before we even arrived that morning. I couldn’t help but wonder which was more important to the patients who had a 50 percent chance of survival: to feel that their doctor was treating them as a human being or to increase their chance of survival by a negligible margin? How big or small would the margin introduced by the doctor’s touch have to be to tip the scale one way or another?

Before I could finish thinking through my ethical dilemma, we left the ward to scrub in for surgery. There I found the only working hand-sanitizer dispenser.

Natalia Birgisson is a second-year student at Stanford’s medical school. She is half Icelandic, half Venezuelan and grew up moving internationally before coming to Stanford for college. She is interested in neurosurgery, global health, and ethics. Natalia loves running and baking; when she’s lucky the two activities even out.

Photo of Ugandan hospital by Natalia Birgisson

Medical Education, Medical Schools, SMS Unplugged

Buzzwords in medical school

Buzzwords in medical school

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

Learning in medical school often feels like learning a completely new language. There are numerous acronyms (OPQRST, CAGE, etc.) and molecules (IL-1, TGF-beta, etc.) and more. But most striking to me are two particularly ubiquitous buzzwords: “high-yield” and “protected time.”

I feel like I heard both these terms – and particularly the former – thrown around every single week of this past school year. “High-yield” has been used to refer to, as you might guess, the material that yields the highest amount of gain – i.e. for us students, it’s the material that’s going to show up on our tests. This term pervades not only conversations among classmates but also study materials. First Aid – one of the main Step 1 book resources – takes pains to highlight “high-yield” concepts, and Pathoma – another Step 1 resource – goes even further, identifying ideas that are not just “high-yield” but also “highEST-yield.”

This idea of focusing on “high-yield’ concepts bothered me at first and continues to bother me a little bit today, largely because my classmates and I often determine for ourselves what is “high-yield” and what is “low-yield,” dedicating our study time to the former and ignoring the latter. The worst part is that we may be ignoring information that may be “low-yield” in the context of exams but actually “high-yield” in the context of patient care. The flip side of this is that we only have a certain number of hours in the day; perhaps it makes sense for us to be judicious about what we focus our attention on?

Another phrase that has been widespread in medical school is the term “protected time.” I started hearing this during the very first week of medical school, when we had part of our afternoon off for “protected study time.” Later in the year, I attended a panel featuring five pediatricians. The question of work-life balance came up, and one of the doctors mentioned that she carved out “protected time” to be with her 2-year-old daughter every evening between 5 and 7 PM. This statement was met with general appreciation but also minor panic. There are so many aspects of our life that deserve “protected time” – family, friends, time for creativity, and more – and yet, again, there are only 24 hours in a day. Where does “protected time” start and end? And what does it include? And is it really reasonable to expect “protected time” when there are so many patient -care demands for physicians to navigate?

As I’m about to enter my second year of medical school, some of my questions remain unanswered. How can my classmates and I make sure to learn medicine well enough and thoroughly enough that we can both meet and exceed expectations in patient care? Is identifying “high-yield” material an ineffective, shortsighted approach? And how do we identify what falls under “protected time”? Here’s hoping I figure out this tentative balance during this upcoming year!

Hamsika Chandrasekar just finished her first year at Stanford’s medical school. She has an interest in medical education and pediatrics.

***

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.)

Pediatrics, SMS Unplugged

Behind the glass window: Experiences in an infant follow-up clinic

Behind the glass window: Experiences in an infant follow-up clinic

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

behind window - smallAs I mentioned in my last entry, I’m in Boston this summer. I’m one of several interns who are part of the Newborn Summer Student Research Program, coordinated by the Harvard Program in Neonatology, in partnership with a number of Boston hospitals. Aside from connecting us with excellent research mentors, this program ensures that participants get some clinical exposure as well. Over the past 5 weeks, I’ve had a chance to shadow physicians in the Boston Children’s Hospital neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), the Brigham and Women’s Hospital delivery room, the BWH nursery, and most recently, the BCH Infant Follow-Up Program (IFUP).

It’s this last shadowing experience – in the infant follow-up clinic – that I want to touch on in this entry. When I first heard about this clinic, I thought it was for babies who were being seen soon after birth, just to make sure everything was okay. As soon as I walked into the clinic, I realized that IFUP was not for newborn babies but rather for kids of all ages, who were being followed up on for various developmental issues that had arisen during their previous time spent in the NICU.

During my brief time in the clinic, I met patients ranging from 22 months to 10 or more years of age. I use the word “met” loosely here, for in fact, I did not meet a single patient in person during my time at the clinic. I stood with some fellow interns and some physicians behind a one-way mirror, quietly observing as various tests were run on these children. At first, I found myself fascinated by the physician administering the various tests (ex. the Stanford Binet, the Beery VMI), for I had never seen them given in a clinical setting.

Soon, however, my attention slipped from the physicians to the children being tested. I felt such a complex mixture of emotions: sadness, for many of these kids had never experienced a week devoid of doctor’s appointments; amazement, at how far these children had progressed developmentally given where they started; and humility, for it was pure luck that prevented me from sharing the same developmental struggles that these little patients did.

As these thoughts swam around in my mind, my attention slipped once more, from the children in the room to their parents. I felt drawn into the emotions that flitted across these parents’ faces – pride when their kids correctly answered the physician’s questions, a pang of pain when a question was answered incorrectly, a sense of helplessness when the physician mentioned that the child would need yet more therapy. In response to the latter, one mother said, “I’ll do whatever it takes.” Such a simple statement, something I’ve heard several times before in movies and TV shows, but hearing it here, in a clinical setting, while standing unseen behind a glass wall, my heart broke. I wanted to reach past the divider and give these parents and these little kids huge hugs, to tell them it would be okay.

I can’t quite say why this clinical experience touched me so much. Perhaps it’s because the glass wall between me and the patients, physicians, and family members was less like a barrier and more like a window, offering me a view into the lives of not only patients but also the family members who love them so much and the physicians that strive to do everything in their power to help them heal.

Hamsika Chandrasekar just finished her first year at Stanford’s medical school. She has an interest in medical education and pediatrics.

Photo by A

SMS Unplugged

How to get a student-friendly room for under $100

How to get a student-friendly room for under $100

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

Natalia in her roomTo all the incoming med students wanting ideas on how to set up their rooms with the staggering debt of higher education, here’s what I suggest:

  • $13.38 for 32 sq feet of “Thrifty White Hardboard Panel Board,” but we can call it your new best friend. Home Depot
  • $10 for screwdriver and screws. Home Depot
  • $10.79 for dry erase markers, eraser, and spray. Office Depot
  • $4.99 for a 3 pack of scented candles in glass holders. Ikea
  • $2.98 for 300 pack of matches. Home Depot
  • $8.99 for a plastic storage box that fits under most beds – reserve that for the pile of discarded clothes, papers, and notes that you don’t have time to clean up until after finals. Ikea
  • $14.99 for a basic night stand. Let’s be real, you’re going to study late into the night on your bed and fall asleep. Set yourself up with a nightstand so you don’t have to drool on the laptop you were using. Ikea
  • $6.99 for a table lamp to go on your night stand. Ikea
  • $9.99 for curtains – color so it feels like home. Ikea
  • $7.96 for curtain rod set. Ikea
  • $4.99 for the Swedish meatballs. Ikea

Total: $91.06 with room for tax

You’re welcome.

Natalia Birgisson will soon start her second year at Stanford’s medical school. She is half Icelandic, half Venezuelan and grew up moving internationally before coming to Stanford for college. She is interested in neurosurgery, global health, and ethics. Natalia loves running and baking; when she’s lucky the two activities even out.

Photo courtesy of Natalia Birgisson

Health Disparities, Medical Education, Patient Care, SMS Unplugged

In medicine, showing empathy isn’t enough

In medicine, showing empathy isn't enough

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

SMS_image_072214As a medical student, it’s difficult to face a situation where everything possible is done for a patient, yet due to circumstances (seemingly) beyond our control, the risk of future harm remains uncomfortably certain. The majority of our medical school learning focuses on how to cure illness; unfortunately we’re not always taught how to deal with the real-world issues that face our patients and that threaten the medicine we practice.

This month I’ve been on my neurology rotation at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, a county hospital with patient demographics quite different from those seen at Stanford Hospital. As I serve a more diverse and disadvantaged socio-economic population, it’s often the case that the information in the patient’s “Social History” section, which I usually quickly pass over, becomes a defining piece in deciding next steps. The 20-something-year-old with daily seizures because he’s so high on methamphetamine that he forgets to take his pills, the 40-year-old with left-sided paralysis who keeps checking in to the emergency department because she feels unsafe living alone in a trailer park, the 60-year-old who didn’t present to the hospital until days after suffering a stroke because he couldn’t physically get to the door to call for help: These patients demonstrate how social situations can make efforts to provide medical care at times seem futile.

In medical school, we’re taught the pathophysiology of disease and systematic approaches to medical management, but not how to deal with social contributors to health. (The latter is a not-so-glamorous aspect of medicine relegated to the hidden curriculum of clerkships.) During pre-clinical years we spend a lot of time discussing how to make empathy a part of our clinical skill-set, but a pitfall to practicing medicine in a way that is sensitive to a patient’s social context is the belief that showing empathy is enough. To express concern for a patient is different from really understanding a patient’s challenges. Things like the fear that drives a patient to repeatedly present to the emergency room for “inappropriate” reasons and the thought process behind not getting an MRI done since it would mean missing work may not fit traditional logic, but they represent an important piece in delivering care.

What can’t be taught in school is an inherent understanding of the difficulties that some patients face, which is why the push for future physicians to be individuals representative of the various backgrounds that patients come from is so important. (It can be surmised that students who have endured these difficulties, themselves or through family, socio-economic or health related, could better relate to patients they come in contact with.) While socio-economic demographics are easily seen on paper, though, what is harder to select for and recruit is the student who has lived the real-world environment characterized by social issues like multiplicity of chronic illness, housing insecurity, and financial hardship. And, of course, many students in this very position never make it to the point of training for a health profession as a result of the very hardships that make them more attune to the social issues that may contribute to poor health.

Medical school recruitment has changed in ways that will hopefully improve diversity of recruited students and contribute to a greater understanding of the background of all sorts of patients among health-care providers. However, more still needs to be done to support students from less-traditional and under-represented backgrounds so they reach the point of applying in the first place. Instead of being discouraged by their less-than-ideal journeys to medical school, students who have endured educational, financial, and social hurdles should be encouraged to use their learned experiences as a frame of reference to positively impact the delivery of health care.

Moises Gallegos is a medical student in between his third and fourth year. He’ll be going into emergency medicine, and he’s interested in public-health topics such as health education, health promotion and global health.

Drawing by Moises Gallegos

Medical Education, Medicine and Society, SMS Unplugged

The woman in the elevator: dealing with death in medical training

The woman in the elevator: dealing with death in medical training

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

flowersAlmost every patient I meet gives me the gift and curse of forcing me to confront a new side of my own vulnerability. I see new ways to die, new ways to suffer, new kinds of setbacks or losses. Of course, very little of this knowledge is technically new: My mother taught me that everyone dies, life isn’t fair, and so on. But since starting clinical training, what is new is the intimacy with which I live that knowledge.

On my neurology rotation, I was sent to examine a little boy in the ICU who had become unresponsive. I will never forget what I saw when I lifted his eyelids. His right pupil was rapidly changing shape from lumpy oval, to diamond, to a slit like a cat’s eye.

I alerted my attending, who somberly explained that that the boy’s brain was probably herniating – in other words, it was under so much pressure that it was being pushed into places it shouldn’t go. A few minutes later, a CT scan showed massive bleeding in his brain. The neurosurgeons were called, but determined they couldn’t save his life. As we left, a curtain was pulled in front of the room.

A few minutes later, already back to work in other parts of the hospital, my team stepped into an elevator. Before the door could close, a young woman ran in behind us. As the elevator ascended, she sunk to the ground and wailed, “Am I going to lose my baby? Please don’t let me lose my baby.” When the doors opened, she sprinted toward the ICU. With horror, I realized the woman was my patient’s mother. Her baby was already gone.

The next morning was a gorgeous Saturday. I had the weekend off so I put on my grungiest clothes and headed to my community garden plot, determined to separate myself from the week’s experiences. Weeds had crept in during a few especially difficult clinical months. I placed a shovel in the dirt, put all my weight on it – and it didn’t budge. I tried again, but the soil wouldn’t yield. I discarded the shovel and reached to pull a huge weed. The dead branches crinkled off in my hand, roots still entrenched in the hard, dry California earth. I sat down among the weeds, defeated, face in my hands.

A woman working another plot – a fellow student gardener I had never met – walked over and asked, “Are you okay?”

“I’m just not strong enough to do this. I should give up my plot.”

“I’ll help you clean it up,” she offered.

“Thanks… Sorry… I’ve just had a bad week.”

“Lots of final exams?”

“No. But I watched a little kid die yesterday.”

My new friend didn’t miss a beat. She knelt down, gave me a hug and said, “You are strong enough. Let’s get your garden cleaned up.”

I believed her, and kept gardening. I proudly told myself I had found an outlet to successfully cope and put the horrible experience behind me.

But it turns out things like watching that child die aren’t processed and compartmentalized so neatly, and can come back to haunt even the best and most personal times. A few months later, on the night before my daughter was born, my husband and I arrived at the hospital full of excitement, and stepped onto the elevator on our way to Labor and Delivery. But as the doors slid shut, I couldn’t suppress the mental image of the last time I rode that same elevator: a desperate young woman on her knees, repeating “Am I going to lose my baby?” For the thousandth time in medical school, I knew the fragility of my own blessings.

I have come to believe that coping doesn’t mean finding a way to separate “personal” life from “professional” experiences. There is no healthy coping mechanism that will let me walk away from experiences like this unaffected. Instead, I just keep telling stories like this one over and over – to myself, my friends and family, and now you – hoping that in the retellings I will find some meaning, some wisdom, some gratitude, or some peace.

Jennifer DeCoste-Lopez is a final-year Stanford medical student applying to residency in Pediatrics this year. She was born and raised in Kentucky and went to college at Harvard. She currently splits her time between clinical rotations, developing a new curriculum in end-of-life care, and caring for her young daughter.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer DeCoste-Lopez

Medical Education, SMS Unplugged

Fewer than six degrees of separation: the small world of higher education

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category

six degreesSeven months ago, almost on an impulse, I decided I wanted to spend summer 2014 doing research back in Boston (home to my undergrad institution), instead of at Stanford. To this end, I started looking into possible research mentors, and after browsing through the Boston Children’s Hospital website, I found one person whose research interests aligned with my own, sent this person an e-mail and went back to studying for finals. Less than an hour later, I received a response. Two days later, we spoke on the phone. By the end of the week, I was all set for a summer in Boston.

What struck me the most about this entire exchange was not the speed with which it was conducted but the happenstance that accompanied it: I found out during the phone meeting that my now-mentor had actually attended Stanford medical school as well! What, I wondered, were the odds that the single person I chose to e-mail had graduated from the same institution that I now attended?

I thought about this coincidence more in the months that followed, and the more I thought about it, the less it felt like pure luck. Indeed, the past year has shown me just how small the world of higher education can be. Nearly 50 percent of my 102-person med school class comes from four institutions: Harvard, Yale, MIT and Stanford. One of my closest friends in medical school not only went to college with both the girls I’m living with this summer but also lived with one of my current roommates during a summer in undergrad. One of the other med students with whom I’m working with this summer gave med-school advice to the girlfriend of one of my undergrad buddies and – get this – both this coworker and I, unknowingly, performed at the same dance competition last year.

Moments like these make me feel that the “six degrees of separation” theory would more appropriately be called the “two (or fewer) degrees of separation” theory in the world of higher education. And what I’m wondering is whether or not this is a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong – I love playing the Name Game when I meet someone new (“Hi, I’m Hamsika! Where are you from? Yale? Oh, wait – do you know person X, person Y, or person Z? You know all three! No way!”). But there’s something to be said for diversity, not only in terms of race and culture (the two that seem to receive the most media buzz) but in terms of educational background, as well.

I summarized my thoughts on this “small world of higher education” phenomenon to a Harvard Med friend (incidentally, I met this friend at Stanford Med’s Admit Weekend) a few nights ago, and his response was – “Well, it kind of makes sense. If you go to a school like Harvard for undergrad, you’re probably going to end up at a similarly high-ranked institution for grad school. And,” he added as almost an afterthought, “your parents are probably decently well-off, as well.”

Could it be that we’re creating a self-perpetuating cycle in which the world of higher education becomes smaller and smaller and those who miss the “train,” per se, particularly at the “station” of undergrad education, are “derailed”?

I can’t say I know the right answer, but I’d love to hear your thoughts, as the topic of education – as you might notice from the two-liner at the end of each of my entries – is of particular interest to me. Feel free to add a comment below!

Hamsika Chandrasekar just finished her first year at Stanford’s medical school. She has an interest in medical education and pediatrics. 

Photo by Beth Kanter

Stanford Medicine Resources: