Sara Teichholtz, Medical Student, 10:17AM Apr 30, 2013
During our final week of formal instruction before our dedicated USMLE study time, my classmates and I broke into small groups to collectively reflect upon our first two years of medical school. Our group met with our Curriculum dean who was, understandably, interested to hear how our learning styles had changed over the course of our 18 months of instruction. We've all had these kinds of conversations amongst ourselves as we were going through the process, but it was interesting to be able to look back upon our time in full and be able to see where we had ended up. It reminded me of the feeling of finally reaching the summit of a particularly challenging hike, where during the ascent one's only breathless thought is simply to survive the insurmountable climb that looms above.
There were moments last year when I thought for sure I would never be standing at the top of this journey. It's no question that the first year of medical school is difficult for basically everyone, but I reacted to the vast volume of material with perhaps a bit too much panic. After a failed test early on, I entered 24/7 study mode and never left. I legitimately did little else but drill our curriculum into my brain with tireless persistence, going against all of the “take a break or you'll burn out” advice that I encountered. It was an incredibly draining experience -- but as I expressed in my small group discussion, it's something I am very glad I went through. This all-work-no-play strategy allowed me to pass my classes, but by May, I had (unsurprisingly) burned out. I returned this fall much more relaxed, and with a new perspective as a frame for my future studies. I traded off my extreme study habits for a more balanced lifestyle, but I found that even studying for a fraction of the intense hours I kept last year still allowed me to keep up far more than I had expected. I like to think that all that studying acted like a metaphorical barbell for working out my hippocampus -- an idea that might not be so far off from reality.
At the beginning of last year, one of our deans showed us an fMRI image from a study involving the brain changes that occur in medical students -- memory centers transforming from spots of dull glow to flaming intensity between the “before” and “after” panels. I remember looking at my friend sitting next to me with what had become our only expression by that point: extreme exhaustion. But as I look back on that moment, I know that underneath those exhausting hours of work, my brain was undergoing similar changes to those projected before us. So although most days of USMLE studying feel like more information is squeezed out of my brain than in, I'm glad that my classmates and I took the time to reflect on all the changes that our brains have gone through. I may not be able to see my own hippocampus lighting up brighter these days, but I'm pretty sure I can feel it.