Advice to a Prospective Medical Student

The other day, Gina and I were invited to a party celebrating a friend’s child’s graduation from undergraduate school. The student provided “Advice to the Grad” cards to be filled out by the guests. Since this graduate aspires to go to medical school, this – a bit more than a cards-worth… – is what I wrote. What can you add?

Ruminations of a Semi-Salty Old Doc

[Ms Graduate],

Here are a few thoughts for you to ponder over the next several years.

–Become familiar with the life and philosophy of William Osler, MD. He is revered in western medicine as the father of modern clinical practice, and as a Model Physician. He was erudite yet very humanistic, and he loved children as patients. He had an abiding interest in the history of our art and profession and he wrote extensively about it. If you are feeling particularly ambitious, you could read his friend (and father of neurosurgery) Harvey Cushing’s two-volume The Life of Sir William Osler. It is available used (it is long out of print) for around $12-15 from ABEbooks.com. Less ambitious but definitely more important would be Osler’s one-volume collection of essays Aequanimitas, several editions of which are also available from ABEBooks.com. The book’s title essay will give you a sense of the man and his philosophy of practice. I have also read and re-read his essay, The Army Surgeon. All of the essays are excellent and mostly relevant today, even though the book was initially published a century ago.

–Cultivate an interest and some knowledge of the history of medicine. It is a story of inspired and inspiring human endeavor. Jacalyn Duffin’s History of Medicine – A Scandalously Short Introduction would be a good place to start, and it is also available from ABEBooks.com for about $8, shipping included.

–Consider applying for a Navy or Air Force (Army’s OK, too, but I was Navy) Health Professions Scholarship. If you qualify for one, it gives you a full-ride scholarship for medical school plus a living stipend. (That means you graduate from med school debt-free!) It does commit you to payback military service after you graduate, but the military is a fine place to gain experience at decent pay and mostly reasonable hours. Military residencies are generally pretty good, and you often are given opportunity for residency or fellowship training in very good civilian institutions. I had the Vietnam-era equivalent of this scholarship, and after I served my required years, I stayed in the Reserves and enjoyed a varied and pleasant career with wonderful associations. I’m more proud of my military service than I am of my work with Kaiser-Permanente, which I also very greatly treasure.

–When you’re in medical school, try especially to get experience / rotations in ENT (Ear, Nose, Throat), Dermatology and General Surgery. The knowledge and experience you gain there will serve you well in whatever specialty you choose – and especially with your family! I also think some time spent in Public Health would be of great value. I believe that the biggest bang for Society’s medical buck is gotten from investments in Public Health / Preventative Medicine.

–It used to be said that, “Medicine is a demanding mistress” (the phrase being a throwback to a men-dominant era). The phrase accurately suggests the impositions the profession makes on the practitioner, and the love-hate relationship that we often have with our beloved art. I used to say that, “Medicine is the only socially acceptable reason to be a wretched parent” as a way of explaining / justifying the missed kids’ soccer games (the emergency surgical cases on a Saturday morning) or delayed dinners (the inevitable last-minute patients who needed to be squeezed into the clinic schedule). All this has changed somewhat in recent years, but I remain firm in my belief that unless a person is willing to make some personal sacrifices to the demands of the art and profession, then he or she is probably not cut out for a (happy) life in medicine.

Finally, if, upon reflection and experience, a life in medicine is not a good fit for you, do not feel bad and do not beat yourself up about it. Medicine is and should be a demanding undertaking, and the world offers immense other opportunities for fulfilment for talented and motivated young people. Taken from my perspective as a really old guy, the world is your oyster, and you have little to no idea just how many opportunities can or will open themselves up to you, whether in medicine or not: all you have to do is keep your eyes open to opportunities and be bold in grabbing for them. You will (and should) fail sometimes. But there is glory in the striving, and contentment can be the outcome.

With best wishes for success and happiness in life—

©2018 Thomas L Snyder, MD

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