Medical Student Perspective: Medical School Survival: Replace Cut Throat Competition with Mutual Inspiration & Support
Before medical school, I had never known the meaning of the word "gunner." The term refers to a student who will sabotage his peers in effort to be number one. Though gunners have been haunting medical school classes for years, generations of students have yet to coin a term for the opposite of a gunner. So what I would like to propose is the word "Petra." This word is not intended to refer to the ancient city of stone, but instead to one of my classmates, who has impacted my medical career more positively than I ever imagined possible. She has shown me that the greatest of all doctors (or doctors-in-training) are those who promote their peers, not those who put them down. It's time "Petra" became a word for someone all medical students try to emulate, as fiercely as they avoid the label "gunner."
I sometimes joke that a physician's best days are between the moment of acceptance into medical school until the first day of classes. I remember when I first entered medical school, I would beam with pride as I looked at the shiny words "Medical Student" written across my ID. But the harsh reality of a life in the competitive medical school environment quickly came crashing down, bringing my self-esteem along with it. I struggled to accommodate to the grueling amount of work. I questioned my abilities. How had I fooled admissions into thinking I was qualified for this? Ultimately, I gritted my teeth and learned to tackle the workload one day at time. But I still wasn't satisfied with my level of success. I worried how I could be a good doctor if I could not memorize all of the information? My outlook remained bleak as I imagined nightmarish scenarios of living an unfulfilled life as a subpar physician.
Meeting Petra marked the beginning of an unfathomable stream of changes within me. I was in the final portion of my first year and feeling overwhelmed by the task of memorizing information about the litany of drugs that had been discussed in lecture. Sitting behind Petra, I overheard her reciting mechanisms of action, side effects, and indications for each medication perfectly. At the end of class, I tapped her on the shoulder and asked what her trick was. Petra looked back and smiled at me. Warmly, she invited me to study with her. And what began as a spontaneous study session bloomed into a friendship. We began to study regularly together. During breaks over tea or homemade meals, Petra slowly divulged stories about her life. She entertained me with stories of her childhood on her parent's farm in Texas and her preteen years in Uganda. She worked as a nanny in Switzerland and at bank in the northwestern United States. Her hobbies included teaching yoga and hitchhiking cross-country. She had had the courage to quit her job and risk an uncertain future to follow her dream of becoming a doctor. Petra's stories awed me. She had packed more life-experience into less than three decades than some people do into a lifetime.
My second year of medical school was completely different for having known Petra. After the summer hiatus, we continued to study together. My grades were on a steady ascent, giving me time to pursue personal interests. I took on a leadership positions, I put together inter-professional events, I took the time to meet faculty. Most significantly, I began volunteering regularly in the student-run free healthcare clinic, St. Vincent's, where I kindled a love for working with the local Galveston population. Petra was always behind me, suggesting ways to get involved, introducing me to influential members of our university, molding me into the shape of a leader. Petra replenished my self-confidence. She assuaged my self-doubt. She put life into perspective. Like a mirror, she reflected my own strengths back at me, and for the first time since starting medical school, I realized that being a good doctor meant more than a good grade on an exam.
Medical school is filled with self-questioning. It is the time in every physician's life when they must consider the kind of medicine they want to practice after graduation. More than just picking a specialty, it means forming values. What was most influential for me was working at the free clinic. It was through the long hours at St. Vincent's that I came to know and respect the physicians who would practice medicine there, pro bono. I started to interact with uninsured patients and learned about the challenges involved with simply reaching a clinic to receive free care. I jumped onto research dedicated to promoting patient arrival to appointments. I realized my passion for indigent care and know that I want to dedicate my career to working with the uninsured. I would have never discovered these values if I had not been inspired by Petra to venture beyond the classroom to explore them. And now having done so, I am more motivated than ever to study hard, not just for the grade, but so I can be the doctor I envision myself becoming.
My one piece of advice to medical students is this: Surround yourself with people who inspire you. Petra inspires me. She is an outstanding student, a phenomenal writer, a charismatic leader, and a good friend. She is going to be a wonderful doctor. But what makes her truly amazing is the way she wishes the best for everyone around her. She spreads success in the way of advice, encouragement, enlightenment, generosity, confidence, selflessness, and mentorship. In short, Petra is everything a gunner is not. And, by helping me achieve my utmost potential, Petra never sacrificed her own success. I hope more medical students will see that while gunners may get the best grades in school, Petras will make the best doctors.
University of Texas Medical Branch
Class of 2016