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Visitor in the OR: How I became pre-med

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 badge - small“Why do you go to medical school?” My little sister frowned, angry that I was leaving again after just a week.

“Why don’t you come with me?” I responded, and ran towards her with my arms outstretched. With a squeal she turned to run up the stairs. So began our last game of chase until I see her again in six months.

My sister’s question followed me on the plane ride back to California. For the last four years, my decisions have been based on the desire to help people through medicine. Every step of the way I've become more sure that this is for me.

It all started with shadowing a neurologist. I was a freshman in college and was trying to decide whether to pursue my interest in psychology or medicine. Little did I know that this neurologist monitors peripheral nerves during neurosurgery, and I soon found myself clad in green scrubs, cap and mask, entering the OR for the first time.

The words craniectomy for microvascular decompression floated my way. When I looked them up later, I learned that this means an artery had come too close to a nerve and every time the heart beat, the artery expanded, hitting the nerve and causing the patient great pain.

Watching the neurosurgeon and his resident move an artery inside the patient’s brain, a sense of belonging washed over me. I felt that I was finally in the right place. The thrill of scrubbing into the OR, the intellectual fascination of seeing the neurosurgeon cut open the patient’s brain and the sense that this person’s life was in his hands tipped the scale on my decision to pursue medicine. It's the moment I look back on when I need to reassure myself that I chose the right path.

Now toward the end of my first year as a med student, I know what things like craniectomy for microvascular decompression mean without having to look them up. And I just got my badge to shadow in the neurosurgery OR again.

I wonder how I'll feel shadowing neurosurgery this time. Part of me really hopes that it’s nothing exceptional so that I can gravitate toward a specialty where I get to see my little sister more than twice a year. Part of me really hopes that I get the feeling again that I’ve found my calling. And I stall a little bit, wondering which one I’d prefer.

Natalia Birgisson is a first-year medical student at Stanford. 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.

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