Like a great monster panting for breath…

September 28, 2010 —

Dr. William Child, a surgeon in the civil war, once wrote that “After a great battle, the whole Army is like a great monster panting for breath.” The same could be said for a class of medical students after a difficult exam. Indeed, I like to think that Dr. Child drew from his own experience as a student in penning this metaphor.

Today marks the completion of our first anatomy exam, an experience which I intend to promptly bury in that same little chamber of my mind which most people reserve for childhood traumas and cheating lovers. Once my legs had dragged my lifeless body back to my apartment, I paused for a moment to appreciate the tell-tale signs of the great deal of stress I had been under for the past few weeks. A pile of old scrubs and unwashed laundry had spilled from the bedroom into the hallway like a beast having escaped its imprisonment. My beard had become long and disheveled from days of incessant studying without even pausing for personal grooming. The kitchen was littered with such a large number of dirty dishes and overflowing garbage, the M.P.H. in me was almost tempted to have it declared a public health nuisance and shut down by the state. Most depressingly of all, even my video games had been decorated by the proverbial cobwebs of neglect in my dedication to study for anatomy.

Of course, the ruins that were once my apartment stand tribute to the completion of one of the most challenging and rigorous exams in our entire career – our first anatomy written and practical. One of four, and rumored to be the worst of them all, the exam consumed between 3 and 4 hours of our lives this morning. Those of us left standing can’t help but feel that sense of pride and vindication that accompanies the relief from having achieved this milestone.

It’s not just about being able to figure out whether the stringy cord before you is an artery or a nerve without even getting to poke it or see where it travels. It’s not just about applying one’s self to an almost unethical volume of material only to be given naught but a single minute to sift through it all and answer the query in front of you. It’s not even about managing to calm yourself down to the point where you can logically engage the question before that heaven-forsaken “beep” curtails your thought process and shuffles you to your next challenger. No, it’s about the fact that we’ve all suffered together in a way that only students of our profession can. My tales of anguish and agony from this experience were thus greeted with joy and delight from my sister, who had been waiting all these years until the day when we could both complain together about the horrors of anatomy exams in medical school.

One could surely spend an entire year teaching the material in this one class alone, so to compress it into a single course contained within a single semester is madness in itself. On the other hand, maybe it is best to do it quickly and all at once, like pulling off a bandage or running across a busy street during rush hour. Regardless, we can only hope that whatever trauma we’ve sustained this day will be mended in time for our NEXT exam this coming Friday.

On a positive note, however, I’d like to remind my classmates that we have completed our seventh week, and are thus about 4.86% done with medical school! I’m sure it’s just going to fly by from now on!