Wednesday, September 5, 2018

First days of medical school

With getting older comes all sorts of anniversaries.  I started medical school 40 years ago today.

There were the prelims of course, getting the letter of acceptance sometime in June, writing back to accept their offer and I believe there was a deposit cheque involved.  There was also a trip over to Vancouver to pick up the microscope they said we had to buy.  I quit my summer job a week early much to my father's distress; everybody except him thought I needed a little time before starting medical school.

Starting was simpler than for some.  I had been at UBC for 3 years of undergrad already; I only applied to one school and planned to be either starting medical school or finishing off my degree.  I had a room in the student residences.  My friends had got a house off campus; I preferred to have the familiarity of residence and the ability to roll out of bed and walk to my classes instead of dealing with traffic or buses.

My recollection is I went over by bus and ferry on labour day.  At UBC the week after labour day was registration week, a week of drunken debauchery before classes started the following week.  No registration week for the medical school.  Classes started the day after labour day.

So it was on September 5, 1978 that I found myself in a lecture theatre in the Woodward Building sitting in my usual seat at the back, looking around wondering if I knew anybody in my class.  As people filed in, I recognized a few faces from lectures and labs and even somebody I didn't know all that well but had gotten drunk with a couple of times.  I had a negative opinion of what I thought would be my future classmates.  I expected a serious, hard working, cut-throat group of people.  I expected the next 4 years to be a busy, hard and socially very boring time.  (The summer before I started I was introduced to a visiting fiance of a co-worker as a medical student.  "Oh," she said, "I know a few medical students....I don't like any of them."  Great, I thought I've known you for a minute and you've already insulted me.)

Negative thoughts notwithstanding it was an exciting time, the culmination of three years of undergraduate always with a goal of getting into medical school.  We were welcomed by the Dean who informed us that we were the chosen people and welcomed us to the great fraternity of medicine.  We were then registered, and photographed.  I am not sure whether we had further classes that day.  There was a trip to the bookstore to pick up all the texts they said we needed, including the anatomy trilogy written by our Professor of Anaesthesia.  I also bought an ugly short white lab coat.

I went to the Pit (the student bar at UBC) that night and ran into my old friends and got little drunk which meant starting my first anatomy lab the following day with a bit of a hangover, which I would not recommend but I survived the day.

Thursday afternoon was the useless touchy-feely course we took in first year and we were divided into groups of 8.  The 8 of us sat in the room and some older adult asked us to tell the group something about themselves.  It was a round table and the talk started to my right so I got to talk last.  That was not good.  The first 6 had all had incredible lives, attending schools overseas, volunteer work and they all knew exactly what kind of doctor they wanted to be (and that kind of doctor was not an anaesthesiologist or a general practitioner).  Fortunately the person to my left, turned out to be a down to earth person, with an ordinary life, actually from Victoria although from a different high school.  Then I told my boring life story and we went on to something else.

Later that Thursday we had a tour of VGH lead by 4th year medical students who seemed so incredibly cool, followed by a party in the Medical Student Lounge on 10th avenue.  This party was by tradition put on by the second year class who had survived first year.  They were, as I later learned, by UBC standards an intense group.  Talking to them was somewhat anxiety provoking as they told us about the amount of work we could expect to do in first year (which was mostly true) followed by telling us that second year was worse (which it wasn't).  This was very depressing but  we had Friday morning off and the beer was cheap, so I got to have a few and made some friends in my class and I remember in the early morning a bunch of us heading off to Bino's on Broadway for pancakes before somebody drove me back to the campus.  This was to be the first of many drunken parties in medical school. 

Friday afternoon the first week was our 3 hour Biochemistry lecture and I was most impressed when Dave, my new dissecting partner loudly announced that the lecture would be continued in the Pit.  It just happened to be the night of the second Ali-Spinks fight which was on the big screen and it was great to see Ali regain his title.  Between that and running into my old friends, I think I closed the Pit down.  Medical school was not looking bad.

First year was heavily weighted on Anatomy with 3 or more dissection labs a week, along with a histology lab and 2 hours lectures 3 days a week.  It became apparent that most of us were in grave danger of failing anatomy if (or even if) we didn't work our buns off.  This was memorization of trivial details on a scale none of us had ever encountered.  It was, I am sure, humbling for all us, accustomed to being at or near the tops of our classes to have to shift into survival mode.  The whole stress of the situation seemed to bring everybody together perhaps in the same way basic training brings together soldiers.  We spent so much time together in those days as we all had same lectures and same labs.  We usually ate lunch and had coffee together, and frequently drank together.  People started inviting the whole class to house parties. 

Our class was the largest ever at UBC with 88 students.  There were supposed to be 100 but they weren't able to expand the anatomy lab to fit that number (which may have been galling to the 12 people who found themselves left on the waiting list the day after Labour Day).  Also a first we had 33 women which was most ever at UBC.

I think back now on how little I knew of what was ahead.  I knew nothing of details like specialization, certification exams or what was involved in being on call.  I had no idea what an anaesthesiologist was.  The only one I was aware of was the morose Australian on MASH, who always seemed to say, "Oim losing 'im Hawkeye".  Looking back it is interesting of how little we were prepared for the world we were going to go into  or that in which we live today.

I believe all but two of our class graduated although it took some more than 4 years.  One poor fellow failed anatomy and the summer supplemental anatomy course and was turfed.  The other developed schizophrenia in second year which was fascinating but depressing to watch.  We all went away to internships, did locums, residencies, settled down in various parts of country, a lot of the class eventually washing up in the lower mainland.  We had a 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th and 25th anniversary.  Only about 40 people attended our 25th anniversary in Vancouver, surprisingly given the number who lived in the area.  Nobody bothered organizing a 30th or 35th (maybe they did but didn't invite me).  Two of my classmates work in my city.  I used to see one, a neurosurgeon, a lot when I worked at the Centre of Excellence.  The other a psychiatrist, I last ran into over 10 years ago.   At least 3 of our class have died including my good friend Dave and also Phil who was in my dissecting group.  (The fourth member of our dissecting group, contacted me a few months ago on LinkedIn and introduced herself as the other surviving member of our group.)

40 years on now, I can just look back to the excitement, the fear and the relief of those first days in medical school.