Written by Lisa Kim, Class of 2023 Secretary
The second year of medical school is a unique time: you’re in the middle of preclerkship, you’re facing the anxieties of entering clerkship, and there’s increasing pressure on you to figure out what you want to specialize in. On top of that, the Class of 2023 has had the ‘special’ experience of transitioning from in-person to virtual learning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I had the pleasure of hearing about the thoughts and experiences of 5 classmates, friends and colleagues: Brendan Gordon, Michael Paillé, Gol Roberts, Andrew Samuel and Mira Villegas.
Tell us about your life before med school.
Brendan, who calls his path to medicine “a bit of a zig-zag”, began his journey with the goal of becoming a filmmaker. He entered university with plans to pursue philosophy and history, but left with a Computer Science degree. He moved on to work at a tech company in New York City for a few years, and eventually came back home to Winnipeg to start medical school.
Mira once aspired to be a news anchor, with interests in broadcasting and journalism, but, inspired by her high school biology teacher (who was also once a medical student), chose to pursue a Bachelor of Science and made a direct transition to medical school thereafter.
Prior to medical school, Michael completed his Masters degree in Community Health Sciences while concurrently participating in research that explored the epidemiology of treatment-resistant depression in Manitoba. He also worked with the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy and with Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living where he played an instrumental role in developing the framework for the public health surveillance report on cannabis use in Manitoba.
Andrew, a former pharmacy student of 2 years, looks back fondly at his time in the College of Pharmacy and credits his profound appreciation for the roles of other healthcare professionals to his prior experience. He’s worked as a student pharmacist at several community pharmacies, as well as at the Boundary Trails Hospital pharmacy. Motivated by his desire to participate in patient care in a more hands-on capacity, he applied to medical school, and worked in Boundary Trails until just one day before the start of orientation week!
Gol, originally from Brandon, finished high school with “no idea what [she] wanted to do with [her career]”. When given the options of medicine or law, she chose to pursue the latter and decided to enroll in a Bachelor of Arts program. While in the bookstore three days prior to her first day of classes, she came across “all the biology and anatomy textbooks, [and] knew [she had] made the wrong choice and immediately changed all of [her] classes”. Gol went on to complete an honours project on Bowen-Conradi Syndrome, trained and worked as a paramedic throughout southwestern Manitoba, and after four application cycles, was accepted to medical school!
What did you expect when you first started medical school?
A common answer was that no one really knew what to expect. Some were nervous, and others were scared of the large class sizes and how that would affect making friends, of being an imposter (a fear almost universal to all new med students), of not fitting into the classic med student “mould”, and of the workload. Brendan commented, “I was told it would be like drinking from a firehose and that I’d spend many sleepless nights cramming for exams”. For the record, Brendan clarified that that hasn’t been the case so far!
What was your favourite part about Med 1?
For many, it was the novelty – of meeting new people, of the anatomy labs, of meeting patients. The social aspect of first year, during pre-COVID times, is one that even had Andrew looking forward to exam days: “My favourite part about Med 1 was exam days because that meant there would be some sort of social aspect planned right after the exam.”
What lessons have you learned so far throughout medical school?
For Andrew, it was: “Patients do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. That’s a quote by someone, I don’t remember who haha.”
For Gol, it was: “That everything has a name! Which may sound superficial, but I find it strangely comforting and empowering. There [have] been so many presentations that I had seen in my previous career, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe. Learning this language shows me how far I’ve come and makes me feel more a part of the medical community.”
Michael stated, “One thing I learned is the importance of boundaries. Medical school is always there. You can always be studying. There’s always something more to learn. It’s easy for me to get caught up in this, but I’m learning the importance of not studying at a certain point.”
Mira echoed Michael’s sentiment, commenting on the importance of efficient time management and strong work-life balance: “Medical school is hard work, and you need to find time to balance extracurriculars, physical activity, sleep, and maintaining important relationships in your life.”
How has your time in medical school changed or pushed you?
Medical school pushes you in many different ways – personally, intellectually, professionally, and emotionally. It challenges you to be critical, to troubleshoot and to improve. For Andrew, it created “healthier sleep and work life balance behaviours because it really is a marathon sprint at times.” For Brendan, it pushed him to be “a better listener, more patient and more openly empathetic, … not just in clinical scenarios, but in other aspects of [his] life [as well].” For Gol, “It’s made [her] think a lot about how [she] make[s] decisions, where [she] get[s] [her] information and evaluate[s] that information. [She calls herself] a “go with your gut” type of person but [she has] been trying to practice being more systematic in [her] thought processes and take the time to analyse the information behind these “instincts”.”
What do you wish you had known before starting medical school? What advice do you have for others either in the year below or for those applying to medicine?
As cliché as this may sound, the overarching theme across all pieces of advice was to “discover you and be you”.
Michael stated, “for those thinking of applying [to medical school], my advice would be to not be so worried if life takes you on a different path for a while. Enjoy the ride rather than focusing on a destination. You’ll get there. It’s okay to work towards other professional experience before starting medical school. Early in undergrad, I highly valued the idea of trying to get into medical school as quickly as possible. When that wasn’t the path that my life took, I struggled with feeling like a failure in some ways. But now that I’m two years in, I’m so grateful for my past self’s desire to pursue extra training in research and public health.”
For those entering first year, Andrew encourages people “to not feel pressured into signing up for everything”. While he acknowledges the advantages to staying involved, he emphasizes, “[it’s] even more important to make sure that one is actually interested in those extracurricular activities so they are not a burden”.
Applicable to any point in your journey through medicine, Gol advises: “do not to try and fit into a box that wasn’t made for you. I remember during my first few interviews I was so conflicted over saying what I actually felt versus what I thought they wanted to hear. It made me incredibly unhappy and [I] perform[ed] horribly. Be genuine, seek experiences that will help you grow and be generous with your insights.”
What were your expectations at the beginning of this year?
“Maybe this is the experience from a lifetime of video-games talking, but usually difficulty increases with the ‘level’ number. I thought Med 2 would be a lot harder than Med 1 in terms of content and time-commitment since we would be expected to carry forward all the information from our first year. That hasn’t been the case so far,” says Brendan.
Many expected that we’d learn the entire breadth of pathophysiology to exist, and feared the terrifying expectation to remember every single detail not only from second year, but from first year as well. Gol commented with relief “that this wasn’t the case and the approaches we have learnt to understanding and evaluating disease states are much more helpful.”
What’s your favourite part about Med 2 so far?
For everyone, the best part of Med 2 so far has been the ability to apply what we learned in first year, to have all the pieces come together, and the ability to “see the bigger picture”. Michael comments, “At this point, I have a decent understanding of most organ systems so I’m able to orientate myself to a patient’s problem list. When I really don’t know something, I feel like I know where to find that information and how to start making sense of it. There’s still so much to learn, but I love being at a place of having fewer complete unknowns.”
What are you looking forward to most in clerkship?
It’s safe to say that most of us are happy to be leaving our Zoom classes behind, and are looking forward to the opportunity to apply what we know, and to do real-life learning from patients, colleagues, residents and attendings. Michael adds, “It’s one thing to learn about disease management. It’s another to see a person go through it and learn from their experience.”
Has your enthusiasm for medicine changed in any way throughout your time in medical school?
Overall, everyone unanimously agreed that their enthusiasm for medicine has increased since the start of medical school, but this isn’t always the case. With the challenges that medical school throws at you, everyone has had points where they’ve felt “bogged down” by the volume of material, “by the injustices in our current healthcare system”, or by personal shortcomings. It’s not uncommon for medical students to have moments where they question whether they’re right for the profession. Brendan shares, “Failing 3 OSCE stations demoralized me a little bit and made me question if I was in the right field. It took a few days to recover, but now my enthusiasm is at record highs. After all, it’s better to get something wrong in a fake clinical scenario than in a real one.” Mira highlights some of the things that keeps her going during difficult times, “I have a very supportive and encouraging class and we are taught by amazing faculty members. Medicine is hard work, but it can be very rewarding.”
How has the COVID pandemic impacted your learning experience in medical school? Has it influenced your thoughts about medicine (either positively or negatively)?
Undoubtedly the COVID pandemic has stripped everyone of their social lives in one way or another. In addition to the fewer opportunities to see friends and meet new people, COVID has also limited “access to peers who know so much more about the culture of medicine”, as Michael puts it. “Without family or friends in medicine, the culture of medicine is a major unknown for me. Being unable to have candid conversations about what clinical work is like has definitely made me more anxious about starting clerkship. Beyond that, I find myself with less access to speak with attendings or residents about their experiences, which can often happen more spontaneously at the end of a small group session on campus.”
Trying to focus for hours on end in a virtual format has been a struggle for many as well. The one silver lining is “taking exams in my pyjamas”, as Gol puts it.
What advice do you have for current Med 1s?
From our wonderful interviewees, some quality words of advice:
Gol reassures, “’It’ll be fine’ … It may not always be good, and that’s okay, you’ll find a way through it.”
Andrew advises, “Enjoy medical school as much as possible because it really goes by very quickly. Do not compare yourself to others because that will cause you a lot of anxiety as you are in a profession with very high achieving individuals. As such, be confident in your own abilities and passions and block out all other noise.”
Brendan encourages, “Be open, honest, and transparent with yourself and others. If you don’t know something, reach out to someone – a mentor, classmate, preceptor or an upper year student (consider this an invitation to reach out to me if you have any questions, concerns, issues, problems, fears, hopes, dreams, aspirations, inklings, premonitions, forebodings, omens, ideas, etc.). The best thing about medicine is that you don’t need to do it alone.”
With some final encouraging words, Mira shares: “Trust what you have learned!… Although classes were held virtually this year, hopefully you were able to meet many of the awesome people in your class. Not only are they your future colleagues, but you will all work together to get through some challenging (and fun!) times. You got this, good luck!”
A huge thank you to Brendan, Michael, Gol, Andrew and Mira for taking the time out of their busy schedules to share their valuable thoughts, insights and experiences!