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Free from school

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

Editor's note: After today, SMS Unplugged will be on a limited publishing schedule until September.

girls running

Summer. It beckons with strawberry warm rays of sunlight, afternoons spent splashing in a pool, and the joys of watermelon-flavored popsicles. We, second-year medical students around the country, look out our windows and see children, newly freed from school, frolicking in the playground next door – and feel miserable. For this is the time when we are experiencing the worst of medical school.

We have completed the pre-clinical curriculum, some of us barely crawling across the finish line. We have spent weeks cramming for the USMLE, an exam described in no softer terms than “the most important exam you will take in your life.” And we are becoming familiar with a new kind of anxiety as we prepare to enter clinics for the first time. Or, rather, my classmates are – I chose to take time off between second and third year.

In the midst of Stanford-high expectations for our professional performance, we are seldom taught exactly how to take care of ourselves. I knew that I needed to change something halfway through second year when I found myself outlining a novel instead of studying during finals week. I nearly failed two exams. But I was happy.

I felt satisfied.

And so, I set about finding a way to incorporate more of writing into my medical school experience. Stanford has funding called Medical Scholars, which is set aside for every medical student to take a year off to work on a significant project or research experience. Their office willingly helped me apply for and receive this funding to work on my novel full-time for a year. I can't imagine this level of support for an artistic endeavor from any other medical school. And so very soon, I too will be frolicking in the grass, newly freed from school.

Here is an excerpt of a scene I wrote while studying for a hematology exam:

Beep. Beep. Beep.

I timed my breaths to her heartbeats and tried to ignore the stale, nauseating smell that must come from years of sick people gasping for air. I figured the beeps measured her heartbeats and as long as the machine kept going, I knew the silent fog of death had not yet closed its grip on her.

The hospital had our beds separated by an old curtain, but at least they didn’t have different sections for male and female patients in the ER.

Two cops stood on my side of the curtain, watching me watch her – the shape of her body and the shadows of the nurses bending over her. I wanted to ask one of the nurses to hold her hand. She liked that, even in her sleep.

The nurses on her side of the curtain said words I didn’t understand. Hypovolemic. Hypoxic. Embolism. I wouldn’t have thought they were in English if I had heard them out in real life.

They said words I did understand, like gunshot wound. Fetus. Shock. Blood.


Beep. Beep. Beep.

The grey machines in front of me started spinning on the white wall, blue dots of light streaking back and forth.

I closed my eyes and saw her in the high school gym laughing. She had just made a free throw and held her arms out to me as I bent down to hug her. Her laughter changed to a giggle and then a smile.


I opened my eyes. The beeping had slowed down. I clenched my hands like I did on the bench, willing energy to her as if to a teammate on the court, but more. So much more. Blood dripped farther down my forearm.

They would have to stitch my hand but it wasn’t a deep cut. The nurses had yet to notice. They don’t look over you too well when they think you tried to kill your girlfriend.


I held my breath. The beeping had skipped a beat. Now her beeping machine sounded like a siren. Nurses were running in, yelling. “Dr. Sanders! Dr. Sanders – Susanne call code”

A zipping sound. A bang. The shape of her body jumped and fell back limp.

More silence. The cops looked at each other and then grimaced at me. I couldn’t blame them for thinking I was despicable. But I didn’t care. This couldn’t be the end. This couldn’t be the way she went. She was a fighter. I thought of all the times I had underestimated her strength. She had to get through this.

More yelling. Another zipping sound and a bang.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

The greatest sound in the world. No more yelling. Now the voices were sounds of relief, and this time I did not need to understand the words they used. Her heart was beating again.

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 by Michelle Brandt

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