Ramblings of a Medical Student

 By Aiswarya Sasi (2015)

I walked into the eerily quiet room, like a rabbit venturing into a lion’s cave. In the middle of the room was a lone table, with chairs at both its ends. On one chair sat the source of all my fears. This would be my first viva in medical college, and my cortisol levels were at an all-time high. A few questions into the viva, the examiner asked me, ‘What is the normal red blood cell count?’ ‘Finally, an easy question,’ I said to myself in relief. ‘Seven billion, Sir,’ I said confidently, without a second thought. A pause. His eyebrows shot up incredulously. ‘Oh no, I’m sorry. That’s the human population,’ I said sheepishly, cringing on the inside. In retrospect, this incident amuses me to no end.


There’s something about internal examinations, particularly anatomy, that really bring out all my creativity. When I study the day before the exam, everything makes perfect sense. If you asked me to trace the course of an artery, I would be able to tell you not only how it travels, but also the course of each of its branches, which artery it’s a continuation of, the course of that artery, which artery it terminates as, how it turns 2.5cm from the angle of the mouth, and any other possible detail. Come the day of the exam, though, and the only thing that will strike me is that the facial artery is present in the face. The situation then turns into one where I play God and design an entirely new course for the artery, with an inaccurate diagram to complement it. Sometimes, I’m unsure whether arteries are tortuous or torturous.


The indispensability of witty mnemonics is something every medical student will vouch for. But some times, when you have too many mnemonics in your head, things can get difficult. Especially when you recall a biochemistry mnemonic for an anatomy answer and find yourself rummaging through the depths of your brain in pursuit of a muscle that begins with the letter J. Sentences like ‘Lady Between Two Majors’ and ‘She Looks Too Pretty Try To Catch Her’ are not in the least scandalous when you’re a medical student.


In the month of March, I had my first Physiology practical examination. This was a matter of slight apprehension as we were to have real subjects for our experiments for the first time. When my subject sat down, I assumed he was a Malayali, and I felt an indescribable sense of accomplishment when I began to speak to him in my far from perfect Malayalam. After every instruction I gave, he nodded in agreement. In physiology lab, stethography is synonymous with heavily stained black hands, as it requires the use of a drum coated in soot. To record my first apnea graph on the drum, I instructed my subject (in Malayalam, of course) to breathe out and then hold his breath. He breathed out, took in a little air and then held his breath, as a consequence of which I could not obtain the desired graph.


I tried this three more times, resorting even to extremely animated demonstrations, but to no avail. By this point, my drum was filled with incorrect graphs, my hands and face were adorned with soot, and time was running out. In desperation, I called out to the teacher, who proceeded to ask the subject what was wrong in Kannada. My eyes widened in disbelief. The poor man hadn’t comprehended a single instruction that I’d tediously delivered in Malayalam. I chastised myself exasperatedly and rushed to procure a new drum. When I began my experiment all over again, I made sure to speak to my subject in Kannada. The change in my graphs amazed me- they were absolutely perfect. This examination taught me an important lesson- always ask your patient what language he speaks; never assume. Lessons like these can only be learnt outside the confines of a classroom, often from embarrassing experiences you’ll remember for a lifetime.


Other important things I learnt in college are that being a day scholar mandates tiffin boxes with yummy home-cooked meals, that it is in my best interests to avoid staring at a mess table of exuberant seniors, and that attendance is a weapon faculty wield with great expertise, to name a few.


In the midst of the endless barrage of examinations, I’ve often caught myself feeling undeniably lost. In first year, you learn Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry- or ‘pre-clinical’ subjects, as they’re termed. Since I don’t constantly enter the hospital and interact with patients, it’s easy to forget that I’ll one day be a doctor. As I found myself drowning in the intricacies of countless textbooks, though, the Rural Orientation Program came up to anchor me to the shore. If I were to list out all the life-changing experiences that have come my way in med school, ROP would easily top this list.


On our very first day in Mugalur, a few of us decided to go for a walk through the gullies of the village. As we walked, we happened to chance upon a group of young boys spinning tops on the street. As soon as they saw us, they put down their toys and stared in awe. ‘Doctors!’ they chanted in unison, with a joy that touched all our hearts. I could only smile at them to let them know what a huge impact they’d had on me. This was the first time I’d been recognized as a doctor, and I wasn’t even wearing the symbolic white coat. Experiences like these are incredibly humbling; they make me realize that some day, people will look at me with hope in their eyes, the way those little boys did.


ROP also robbed me of quite a few misconceptions. As part of this program, we went to many houses within the village and interviewed their occupants on myriad allotted topics. Now if a complete stranger knocked on my house and asked me whether I prefer to use a toilet or defecate in the open, I would probably close the door and alert the police. But these people welcomed us into their homes with no qualms, insisted that we only leave after having a cup of tea and answered every single question we asked them to the best of their abilities. They greeted us with their warmest smiles, showed us their farms, and allowed us to click pictures holding their sheep, cows and chicks. I found myself baffled at their ceaseless kindness.


In one of the houses I visited, I sat down to talk to the lady of the house. Over a steaming cup of tea which she had forced into my hands, she told me about her daughter, who was studying engineering in Bangalore. She said that she really wanted her daughter to get a good education and a good degree, but all her daughter wanted was to get married and settle down. The fact that an uneducated woman in a village had a more progressive outlook than an educated girl in a metropolitan city really did surprise me. After this deep conversation, she offered jasmine flowers to me and put them on my hair herself. Having spent all my eighteen years of existence in cities, ROP managed to open my eyes to a whole other way of life that went on inconspicuously in the crevices of every state. At the end of this program, I had a completely different perspective about the rural service that would emerge as a successor to my course.


Getting into medical college is like ordering a dish with a fancy name in a French restaurant. You don’t know exactly what will present itself before you until it actually reaches your table. Initially, as you take the first bite, you’re anxious and apprehensive- you’ve heard that this dish is not for everyone and it’s unlike any that you’ve tried before. But two mouthfuls in and you discover that it’s the best meal you’ve ever had.