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The unwritten curriculum of med school

They say to avoid going to the hospital during July, which is when the newly branded doctors start working after receiving their medical degrees a mere handful of weeks earlier. Whether that urban legend is true or not, it's still a frightening notion to think that that my classmates and I will be branded with an MD at the end of our last names in another year. And from that point on, patients and nurses will begin to respect our medical opinions — whether correct or not — and our signatures would suffice for medical orders.

Sure, we’ve run traumas, intubated patients, delivered babies, treated heart attacks, and cured infections of each and every type. We’ve admitted sick patients and then successfully discharged them in better conditions. And yet, despite twelve months of working in the hospital and taking countless call days, it still feels as if we’ve learned so little and are still as unprepared as ever.

Perhaps it's an inherent limit of our early training: There's only so much medical training and knowledge you can absorb while in the comfort and safety of the medical school cocoon. And there's only so much growth to be gained through memorization and testing.

But to gauge our growth as healers based on how much we learn in the traditional sense would be a red herring. The purpose of medical school was never to only impart textbook knowledge — that can be gained anywhere these days with an internet connection, and those bits of facts and figures would never last long in our saturated brains.

The real purpose of medical school, I now realize, is to teach us how to learn medicine. And by that measurement, we have grown immensely in ways that can’t be measured on paper.

We learned to attach ourselves to the residents and the attendings who were willing to teach, and we followed the tails of their white coats as closely as possible. And we learned that nurses, especially the ones who have been working there for decades, are sometimes the most knowledgeable and kindest teachers.

We realized the need to grow a thicker skin each time the surgeon berated us in the operating room while still maintaining a slice of humanity to offer to the homeless patient who has been admitted for alcohol abuse.

We picked up a habit of eating breakfast in the car to gain that extra fifteen minutes of precious sleep and to shovel down lunch and gulp coffee as quickly as we can, even risking burning our tongue, so we don’t miss the next surgery.

We somehow acquired the ability to keep standing even when we briefly fall asleep after the third hour of holding traction for a broken femur.

We learned our way around the hospital so well that we know which stairwells are always empty so we can always find refuge for a precious moment of solitude to escape the chaos of a busy call day.

Third year wasn't easy. There were the good days when we’d walk out of the hospital beaming with pride, proud of our budding diagnosing abilities. But they were inevitably followed by bad days when we’d scold ourselves for making an inexcusable mistake, leaving us in doubt whether we could ever be trusted as physicians.

But ultimately, for all of medical school’s valleys and peaks, we eventually learned to embrace these experiences because that’s how we grew as healers. And these are the lessons that won’t be found in any textbook or classroom.

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

Steven Zhang just finished his third year of medical school at Stanford. When he’s not cramming for his next exam, you can find him on a run around campus or exploring a new hiking trail. 

Photo by Pixabay

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