101 Things I Learned During My First Year of Medical School

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Holy. Crap. My first year of medical school is officially in the books. Well, almost. I am waiting for my final grades for anatomy and neuro, but I'm 99% sure that I didn't fail them so... that's good. In all honesty, I won't be able to fully relax until I have those grades in my hands, but I'm trying. So far, I have had a very relaxing few days. I've visited with friends, slept in, eaten some delicious food, and enjoyed not reading anything about brains.

On Friday after our last exam, I had brunch and got pedicures with 3 of my friends from school and we were all kind of in a daze at first. We weren't sure what to do with ourselves! It felt amazing to be "done" for the year, but Mia and I kept saying to each other, "What just happened? What is my life? What did we just do?" We didn't really know.

What I do know is that I learned a lot. 10 months, more than 20 exams, hundreds of cups of coffee, and countless hours in the library and Starbucks, bent over textbooks, review questions, old exams, and notes. In the end, it looked like this:

Not pictured: Hours of tutoring sessions, tears, excessive laughter, study groups, fits of giggling when the pressure was high, inappropriate jokes in the anatomy lab, rage-fests, wine (so much wine), karaoke nights, whiteboards, and hugs. Also wine.

But aside from all of the science I theoretically learned, I also learned a lot about myself and about life in general. I thought I'd share that here.

1. Everything in anatomy has at least two names.

2. How to spell ophthalmic

3. Sometimes, the only appropriate thing to say in anatomy lab is, "That's what she said."

4. You won't believe the amount of information you can remember.

5. You also won't believe the amount of information you can forget.

6. Sometimes, you'll get lucky and the answer for a test question will be part of another question

7. Getting 90 minutes of sleep the night before a big exam is not smart. Don't do it.

8. Even if you're only in the anatomy lab for 30 minutes, you'll still smell like the lab. One day I realized that my car smelled vaguely like Trudy. (Trudy was our cadaver.) Don't let this happen to you. Keep a bottle of Febreze in your car.

9. You might feel the need to name your cadaver. Just go with it.

10. Never underestimate the power of dry shampoo, Febreze, deodorant, and a toothbrush.

11. Learn to be okay with "just passing".

Q: What do they call the guy who graduates last in his class from med school?
A: Doctor

It's totally true. Obviously, you're going to want to bust your ass, but if you can just pass... that's all you need.

12. There are going to be people in your class you don't like. Probably a lot of them. There are going to be plenty of people who don't like you either. That's okay.

13. There's going to be at least one time (and let's be honest, probably many more than just one) when you'll wonder what the hell you're doing in med school. It will pass.

14. Find something else to do with yourself that isn't med school, or else you'll seriously lose your mind.

15. Sometimes, you just need to say "fuck it," and watch the last three episodes of Mad Men with your husband. (Or your TV show of choice with your person of choice.)

16. The weekends after a block exam will be the best weekends of your life.

17. You'll never take the ability to do laundry, cook, or clean for granted ever again.

18. That being said, you'll learn to become far more comfortable with a higher level of mess than you ever were before med school.

19. Thank your friends and family. OFTEN. This is just as hard on them as it is on you, in completely different ways.

20. You will figure out how to cry quietly, or at the very least, know where to find the emptiest bathrooms and the quickest route to your car in case you need to have a meltdown.

21. Sometimes though, you'll  just cry before a class and your friend will hug you and you'll pull yourself together.

22. Shit happens that has nothing to do with school and you have to figure out how to handle it without failing out of school. Use your resources.

23. A lot of the diseases you'll learn about will scare the crap out of you and make you never want to have kids. The good news is, you probably don't have any of them.

24. Your family, friends, and complete strangers will immediately start asking you medical questions, despite the fact that you have only slightly more knowledge that your pre-med self did. You'll get really good at prefacing everything with, "Well, I'm not a doctor yet but..." and following that with, "But if you're really concerned, go to the ER/see your physician."

25. Get a planner. I don't care if it's digital or analog, but get one and use it. It's valuable for study time, but even more valuable for scheduling in time to see your friends and important things like scheduling doctors' appointments and car maintenance.

26. Color-coding is your friend.

27. So are whiteboards.

28. Find your study place. Some people like the library, some people like random classrooms, some people (like me) like Starbucks. I was rarely able to study at home because I would quickly find myself covered in cats.

Sure, I wasn't using that Sinatra. It's cool.
The library was, as I frequently said, "where scary people live," so I didn't usually study there unless I was in between tutoring sessions or meetings, or if I had a study room reserved. I basically lived in one of three different Starbucks cafes. I probably owe those baristas a card or some alcohol.

29. You'll quickly become used to touching people, especially if you're a DO student. If someone were to ask me to fix their pelvis, I wouldn't even blink at this point.

30. Ignore the gunners. For those of you not in med school, a gunner is a med student who is an obnoxious overachiever. If you haven't met any gunners, you might be one. Check that.

31. If you were used to being a big fish in a small pond, well... now you're probably a plankton. I am (very) fortunate and feel like my med school class is not cutthroat competitive, but like it or not, you're still going to be competing with your classmates (and thousands of other med students) for residency spots one day. This isn't like undergrad where half of your classmates were morons. Everyone in med school is smart.

32. That being said, you'll probably wonder at least a few times how some of those people manage to tie their shoes in the morning, let alone how they got into med school. Trust the process... or something.

33. It's impossible to know everything from lectures. Yes, the professors will want you to know it all. There is nothing reasonable about medical school.

34. "Studying in medical school is like having sex while you are drunk. You never actually finish, you just keep going until it's not worth it anymore." Basically, that.

35. As a first year med student, you have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. And maybe to be annoyed by the way TV shows portray medicine, but probably not even that. (Except please, for the love of God and all that is holy, STOP TRYING TO SHOCK ASYSTOLE. AND THAT IS NOT HOW YOU DO CPR.)

36. There are way too many acronyms.

37. Biochem is hell. Even if you have a professor who makes everything into a metaphor about climbing a mountain.

38. You may find yourself at a loss for words in non-med student company because hopefully you'll realize, before you open your mouth, that not everyone wants to hear about that time you bisected your cadaver's head. Doubly so if you're at dinner.

39. Everyone wants to know what you want to specialize in. And when you'll be done. The more clueless might ask what you're majoring in, and if you're female, they might assume that you're going to be a nurse. Try not to punch them in the face.

40. You might want to sleep with one of your classmates. Proceed with caution. (This did not happen to me this year, but it did the first time I went to med school. Would not recommend.)

41. You'll find yourself saying, "This isn't high-yield," or "That's not testable," more times than you can count. Sometimes, though, you'll be wrong and it will be sad.

42. You'll learn just how fast an hour can pass. Remember when an hour felt like forever? Well, you can barely get any studying done in an hour. Good luck.

43. Find these people and make them your friends: The financial aid person, the bursar, the tutoring/learning center person, and the administrative assistant for the department. Chances are, if you have a problem, one of these people can fix it.

44. Find a professor (or two) with whom you really connect. They can serve as a mentor, a sounding board, and a guide. They'll also probably kick your ass when you need it.

45. Don't say creepy things to patients like, "Spread your legs." Find another way, literally, any other way, to say that.

46. At some point, you might have to say, "Please lift your breast," so you can listen to heart sounds. Yes, even to a man. And no, it won't be weird.

47. Every once in awhile, you may need to check to see if you're alert and oriented x 3. (To the non-medical people, that means you are oriented to person, place, and time.) Trust me, sometimes, you might not be. If this happens to you, take a break. Or a nap.

48. There is such a thing as too much caffeine. Maybe drink some water.

49. There will be classmates of yours who will turn to, ahem, pharmaceutical enhancement, to aid their studying. Don't be that guy. Drugs are bad, mmmkay?

50. In the end, you're only really competing with yourself.

51. In OMM, if your patient falls off of the table, it's funny... but you fail. So don't do that.

52. If you have a question, ask it, because probably 6 other people have the same question.

53. However, don't be that guy that takes up 10 minutes of lecture asking a completely asinine question. Just don't do it. If it's that important to you, write the professor an email.

54. Everybody lies. (What? Sometimes, Dr. House is right.)

55. Sometimes, the most important guy in the room isn't your professor, but the student who knows how to work the SmartBoard and record the lectures.

56. Buy your own gloves. Hoard them and definitely don't leave them in the anatomy lab. They'll be gone in 3 seconds flat.

57. Find a second year (or a third year, but they're harder to pin down) and (lovingly) make them your sherpa. It helps if you pay them in alcohol or baked goods.

58. Don't watch the anatomy lectures for the pelvis and perineum in a public place because at some point, a giant penis or a dozen vaginas will show up on screen and you'll scare and confuse the people around you.

59. Figure out if study groups work for you. If they do, great. If they don't, also great. If you choose to study in a group, make judicious choices about who you include. You don't want your study circle to devolve into ranting, gossiping, or rehashing the latest episode of Scandal (or whatever TV show is your guilty pleasure).

60. Set time aside to relax.

61. You can find new and exciting ways to procrastinate when you don't want to study.

62. Don't forget your family. They miss you, and you probably wouldn't have gotten to where you are now if they hadn't been there all along.

63. If you're married (or engaged/in a long-term life partnership), set aside time for that person. For me, it meant having dinner with Ken as often as possible, and also going to bed at the same time. Not only was this a way for us to connect, it also kept me from forgetting to eat and sleep.

64. You will learn the meaning of "Adult Decision." Sometimes, you choose to go hard on anatomy for a particular exam and completely screw histo, but then you have to deal with the consequences.

65. Horner's Syndrome is ipsilateral. Always.

66. Remaining positive is key. This sounds like crap coming from me, the Queen of Negativity and Supreme User of the Doom Spiral, but trust me, getting down on yourself will help nothing. If you find yourself stuck in a Doom Spiral, reach out and get help. There's no reason to live like that.

67. The person who brags about not studying at all is probably lying. So is the person who complains (loudly) about studying for 17 hours and not sleeping.

68. Don't talk about grades. Or, if you do, do it quietly and only with people you trust. No one needs to know. My one friend and I had a system where we'd each ask the other, "Are you okay?" after grades came out. That way, no numbers were mentioned and if one of us needed to talk about it, they could be the person to decide that.

69. Sleep when you can, sit when you can, eat when you can.

70. Free is good.

71. Don't try to get out of mandatory stuff. Trust me, you'll get caught and no one will be happy about it.

72. There's something to be said for "playing the game". Sometimes you're going to have to do shit that doesn't make any sense, or be somewhere that seems unnecessary, or participate in some bizarre activity that doesn't seem germane to medical school at all. Just shut up and do it. No one wants to hear you complain, and yeah, we're all probably thinking it anyway.

73. Going back to the positivity thing, there might be someone (or a few someones) in your class who choose to ignore that advice entirely and instead take every opportunity to talk shit about the school, the coursework, the professors, or the fact that it's Tuesday. There are some people who aren't happy unless they're complaining. Learn to ignore them.

74. If you are that person mentioned in #73, quit it. No one is going to want to hang out with you, and they certainly won't want to be on rotations with you.

75. Don't burn your bridges before you can build them. Every physician you come into contact with now is a future colleague.

76. Be a grown-up. We all like to have fun,but don't get shitfaced at events where you will see professors and Deans, and definitely don't show up to things while intoxicated. You're only going to embarrass yourself and your school. It's not a good look.

77. You will pine for the simplicity of undergrad.

78. Then you'll remember that undergrad was a giant pain in the ass and really, you're better off here than there.

79. Learn how to nap without taking a short coma.

80. Set alarms. Lots of alarms.

81. Your anatomy cadaver is your first patient, and he/she deserves all the respect that you would give to a live person.

82. You'll never forget what it's like to cut open a cadaver for the first time. You'll also be shocked at how quickly you get used to dissecting.

83. Rushing into an exam is not the best way to do things. Make sure you give yourself enough time to get up, have your coffee (or morning beverage of choice), eat a little something, and get to school with time to settle in.

84. If you're choosing between studying and sleeping the night before an exam, always pick sleep. The extra two hours of rest will benefit you more than the extra two hours of studying. You can't take an exam if you're unconscious.

85. Shit happens. People get sick, family emergencies crop up. Reach out to your Dean or whoever is in charge of rescheduling things and get help. I had to reschedule two exams due to health issues this year and because I had proper documentation and good lines of communication, I had zero issues getting it taken care of.

86. When you finish your first semester, you'll be dazed. By the time you feel like a human again, it will be time to go back to school. The same thing will happen over spring break.

87. You will never take weekends for granted ever again.

88. Go outdoors as often as possible. See the sunshine and feel the grass and breathe the fresh air. Remember you're a human. Then get your ass back inside to study. (Or hell, study outdoors. But wear sunscreen.)

89. Your family may not understand why you can't go on vacation with them/take time off to have dinner with Aunt Sassafras/run errands for them. Try not to get frustrated when you explain this to them. Repeatedly.

90. Everyone has a story, and you probably don't know it. There might be people in your class who have been through unimaginable hardship. There might be people in your class who are only there because their parents pushed them into medicine, and who would much rather be doing a doctorate in 18th century feminist theory, or something else completely unrelated to medicine. There might be people in your class with health issues, or family issues, or who wonder if they're in the right place. Likewise, a lot of people don't know your story either. (Unless you're me, and keep a blog where you loudly and frequently tell your story.) Remember that.

91. Enjoy the little things. Read a chapter of a book that isn't a textbook. Get a pedicure. Eat something that didn't come out of a microwave. Your mind and body will thank you for it.

92. Take care of yourself. If you're coming down with a cold, rest as much as you can, take some sinus meds, drink tea. Maybe head to an actual doctor if you don't get better. You can't kick ass and take names if you can't get out of bed.

93. Of course, sometimes getting out of bed is a triumph in and of itself, so celebrate it.

94. Three words: Silly. Youtube. Videos.

95. "Sorry, my brain is full," becomes a legitimate excuse for everything from forgetting where your keys are to stopping in the middle of a sentence because you can't remember the next word you wanted to say.

96. Unless you are independently wealthy or have saved up a ton of money (or are basically a way better adult than I am), you're going to take loans out for med school. Chances are, you'll have already taken out loans for undergrad. Know how much you're borrowing, but don't obsess. There's nothing you can really do about it right now except be smart about your spending.

97. On that note, learn to make a budget and follow it. You get two loan disbursements; make it count.

98. Have a friend in med school that you can call when you're freaking out about school/life/failing/exams/professors/lab/etc. It's important to have someone who will commiserate with you for a bit.

99. Have friends outside of med school who you can call when you're freaking out and who will calm you down, tell you that you're a rock star, kick your ass when you need it, hug you, let you cry, and remind you that this is your dream and that you can definitely handle this.

100. You have to laugh or else you'll cry.

101. There are dozens of people who want to be in your seat. This is the most amazing opportunity of your life thus far. Do it right, and you'll love what you'll do. (Yes, even when it sucks.)

And there you have it. Some serious things, some funny things, some practical things. 293 days from white coat ceremony to our last exam of first year. It took blood, sweat, and tears. And wine. And as glad as I am to have the next 68 days off, I'm pretty excited to be a second year med student.

And terrified. But hey, you can be afraid, and you can do it anyway, right?

Yeah, let's go with that.

To my classmates, we did it. We're 25% doctor! To my friends and family, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I couldn't have done this without you. I promise to be a real human until August.

And to all of you out there? Thanks for reading along with my adventures. I can't wait to see what happens next.

(Rising OMS-II)


  1. Congratulations friend! Also, so many of these things reminded me of my time in law school... a time that I am so glad I do not have to repeat :)

  2. I can't believe I actually did it... or that I have 3 years left. Oy.

  3. I can't believe I read this whole thing. Loved this list. Happy 25%! (That sounds like an idea for a greeting card, doesn't it?)


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