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The One Thing They Never Tell You About Medical School

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They tell you about the studying. They tell you about the long nights. They even start telling you about the lives you're going to potentially save. In the months leading up to medical school, everyone has something to tell you. The neighbor next door, the relative you've never talked to before, even the guy who's waiting next to you at Starbucks -- everyone has some advice, some wisdom, some little token of knowledge to impart upon you as you begin this journey towards becoming a doctor.

Eventually those months turn into weeks and those weeks into days, and Orientation Week somehow finally manages to arrive. Freshly white-coated, you're ready to take on the world and tackle this beast called medical school only to be swept away by the crashing wave of new advice emanating from nearly every direction -- from academic advisers, from trialed and tested second year students, from school administrators, even from your fellow first years who've already started studying for board exams that won't be taken for another four years. So by the end of the first week of school, you've accumulated 17 different versions of "the best way to study," nine different lists of "the books you really need to get," and five different takes on whether or not going to class is important.

But it's okay because you expected this. You knew it was going to be hard. You knew it was going to be challenging. You even knew that your free time was going to disappear, and you willingly signed on for all of it. But there's one thing that no one tells you about. There's one thing that never shows up on any medical school brochure or comes up during any college-advising meeting. There's one thing that no medical student panel touches on and no physician you shadow ever tells you about.

It's the sirens. No one ever talks about the sirens.

The sirens come and go all day long. They're there when you're studying at 2 a.m. They're there when you're stepping outside for some fresh air in the middle of the afternoon. The sirens don't care if you're taking an exam or trying desperately to listen for heart sounds. They exist because they have to. They exist because they're supposed to. And in reality, they represent what medical school is all about.

The high-pitched sounds that wail from the tops of ambulances stand as stark reminders of the fact that what we're learning is real. They remind us that something as abstract as the effect of ubiquinone oxidoreductase on aerobic oxidative phosphorylation does matter in the real world. These sirens, they remind us that the patient cases we discuss, the diseases we study, even the clinical vignettes we tackle, are all real. They're as real as the young child that's being rushed into the Emergency Department at four in the morning. They're as real as the elderly woman sitting in the hospital cafeteria praying for her husband's well being. They're as real as everyone who comes and goes through the sliding hospital doors we see through the windows of our classrooms.

In fact, the sounds of passing ambulances very quickly become reminders of why we wanted to be here in the first place. They remind us that the hospital is a place of promise. It's a place you turn to when you know you need help. It's a place you go to in hopes of getting better, of improving, of removing yourself from a place of suffering and bringing yourself into place of healing. And that's a powerful reminder to be dealt each and every day.

As human beings, we need those reminders sometimes. We need to be given those soft nudges that rekindle our fire, that push us to keep on going, and especially those that remind us that what we're doing is worth it. We need those mid-afternoon pick-me-ups reminding us that yes what we do matters. We need to be reassured that our contributions to our communities, to our families, and to our relationships both in what we offer and what we sacrifice are, in fact, meaningful.

And after managing to get through a few weeks filled with long labs and lengthy lectures, a few weekends filled with serendipitous studying and spirited schooling, a few nights lined with plenty of last-minute learning, and, of course, plenty and plenty of advice-accepting, this first year medical student has his own advice to offer: Reach out to the students around you -- your friends, your classmates, even your mentors. Talk to them. Check in with them. Be there for them to remind them that they're appreciated and thought about.

We're in a season right now where undergraduates are entering their midterm seasons, where 1st year law students and medical students are beginning to wonder about their first set of finals, where high schoolers are thinking about applying to college. We're entering a season where 2nd graders are just about to begin cursive letters. This is a serious time in the academic world. It's a time that can be draining and difficult, so try to be there for the students in your life. If it's a Facebook post, a chocolate-filled care package, or just a call to say hello, I bet they'd appreciate it. In fact, I bet they'd be better students because of it.

The one thing they never tell you about medical school, or school in general for that matter, is how important the people around you are in making you successful. No one ever tells you how critical is it to have the support, the love, and the strength of friends and family. No one ever tells you how much you'll be relying on them without them ever knowing it. But more importantly, no one ever tells those people that do go out of their way to motivate and support you how impossible all of this would be without them.

But what do I know? I'm just a first year medical student. I don't know anything yet.