The Selfish Med Student

Part of my med school experience includes spending 20 hours each month at a clinic getting those all-important “patient contact” hours. Just one step up from the shadowing I did for years as a pre-med, these hours give me an amazing insight into what it really means to be a physician. And I work alongside several other first and second year med students who are also keeping track of their “patient contact” hours.

Which brings up the issue of the Selfish Med Student.

In about ten years of working in the medical field and shadowing, I’ve bumped up against all kinds of students. Some are truly clueless. Some are pretty good at pretending they’ve got it all together. Some really do have it mostly together. And there’s always a few who have achieved some level of maturity and are the ones I hope to stay in touch with, knowing their future patients will be in very good hands.

So what’s the deal with the selfishness thing?

1. Med students have to be selfish. Sorta.

Medical school is intense. As you’ve noticed if you’re in it, and as you’ve imagined if you haven’t started yet. Nothing can quite prepare you for the level of intensity, the sheer volume of information that is constantly thrown at you. And in order to do well (translate that: in order to test well, and retain the information for future boards and a lifetime of practicing medicine), med students really do need a degree of what some would call selfishness.

I call it having good boundaries and dedication to focus.

I turn down just about every invitation for socializing (except during breaks in classes). I stay off of social media most of the time. I’ve learned how to gently say no thank you. And I’m okay with being misunderstood and being called anti-social sometimes. Studying is a priority.

2. Med students have to not be selfish. Seriously.

This means losing that “but what about me” mentality. That old saying the world doesn’t owe you a living is a good place to start… but it goes deeper than that.

The difference between being just another medical student, and being a stand-out student who will become an amazing physician, often boils down to the selfishness factor.

Here’s some ideas on how to do that.

  • Lose the entitlement thing. The world owes you nothing. The school owes you nothing. You’re “entitled” to nothing. Rather than beating my head against issues, I choose to focus on how I can contribute to the greater good – one class, one classmate, and one patient at a time.
  • Lose the me-first thing. You don’t need to mention how tired you are, how little sleep you’re getting, or what score you got on the last exam. Its really okay – and actually preferable – to hold the door open so someone else can walk through first. Its really okay to collaborate and share rather than fighting for the top-dog spot.
  • Lose the competition thing. Compete with yourself, not your fellow students. Promote “us”, rather than “me”. Be known as the one who builds up others rather than tearing others down. Now please understand, I am a super competitive person. Seriously. But I’ve learned over the years that there’s a way to be competitive without being cut-throat.
  • Embrace what it means to serve. Its so easy to get stuck in service for the sake of adding one more item to the CV. But medicine is a profession of service. During the times that you’re in an observership or shadowing, be fully present. Pay attention to how other physicians and students treat people – both on the positive and on the negative side. Make room in your mind and your soul to have your brain on high alert “learn-mode” while your heart is fully engaged with your patients and mentors. And yes, I know just how challenging that can be.

Being a med student doesn’t have to equal being selfish. Its not all about me. I’ve learned that I can be my driven- focused- intense- self, while still being a gentle giving respectful member of a class, of a team. I’ll take it.


Managing Down Time

One would think that dealing with “down time” would be easy, right?

A whole week without classes, test prep, or doing thousands of q-bank review questions used to leave me feeling a bit out-of sorts. Like I was slacking if I wasn’t studying. I’d worry I was goofing off way too much and would have a tough time re-adjusting when classes resumed.

There are three things I’ve learned to do during down time that have removed a great deal of stress from this educational journey.

1. Catch up on self care

I do fairly well keeping my crazy-busy life in balance. But a week without classes means things like getting a little more sleep, taking time to enjoy an actual sit-down meal, and watching an entire movie start-to-finish without the laptop notes competing for brain time.

Maybe even more important, I use down time to evaluate how I’m doing in the self-care department. Med school is intense. One doesn’t have much time for soul-searching reflection, long walks in the moonlight breathing in the peace of nature, or cathartic tears while watching a sappy movie. Down time is the perfect time to take stock – how’s my physical health? How’s my emotional health? Do I continue to have my support systems in place to lift me up during the inevitable moments of self-doubt and overwhelm? Have I balanced it all with a healthy (but manageable) dollop of giving back?

2. Rediscover having fun

Having fun doesn’t have to mean an expensive vacation or going overboard on the parties. For me, having fun during down time means catching up on yard work, rearranging the living room, and spending a few hours surfing on Facebook without feeling guilty. I’ll check the local paper for upcoming activities at the park, take my camera up in the hills and capture wild cloud formations, and visit friends I’ve neglected during the last block of intense “blinders-on” focus.

3. Study ahead

While some might disagree with this one, I’ve learned that my stress level goes way down if I take some time every day during down times to study ahead. I have the privilege of downloading all the lecture slides for the upcoming block – its much less overwhelming to go into a new block having previewed every single lecture twice (once during down time between blocks, again before each lecture during the block). Once I figured out #3, I was able to be rid of that inevitable “oh my word there’s so much stuff to learn how the heck am I going to cram all this stuff into my brain in a way I can pull it back out when I need it” feeling.

I will admit, there’s a part of me that truly enjoys every flipping moment of this grand adventure called medical school. I used to resent the down time – the breaks were something to just put up with, trying hard not to resent the “wasted time”. Then I realized that this is LIFE. I’ve chosen to pursue a career that involves a lifetime of learning, growing, becoming, serving. So in order to stay in balance for the long term, it is essential that I remain in touch with the intensity of learning as well as the importance of relaxation and refilling.

I think I’ll go dig some dandelions out of my front lawn now…


This Is My Story

I’m most definitely not your typical medical student.

To begin with, I’m in my 50s.

But the story begins a few years back. In my mid-40s I realized that I simply couldn’t shake my dream of pursuing the study of medicine. Problem was, I didn’t even have a college degree. So I went in fear and trembling back to the undergrad university I’d attended almost twenty years previously, and discovered to my amazement that my brain worked just fine. With no academic foundation (except a 9th grade general Algebra and general Biology course from 1975), I made it through Pre-Calculus and Biology. I battered my way through Chemistry and Physics, and fell in love with Biochem (go figure).

Then I studied and reviewed and stressed, and took the MCAT so I could apply to medical school. Of course med schools would be thrilled to have me as part of their next class, right?

From 2006 until 2010, I applied over, and over, and over. Each year I’d apply a little more broadly. My MCAT expired so I had to retake that infernal test, but I did it.

By 2010, I’ll admit I was a bit discouraged. Maybe the universe was trying to tell me something. If even third-tier medical schools were unwilling to accept me, maybe I needed to go in a different direction. So I completed a master’s degree in Neurobiology, and loved every minute of it. During that process, I had the privilege of working with human cadavars for the first time, doing intricate neuro research, and attending a national research conference to present my research work. I TA’d a few classes and remembered that I loved to teach. And, I tried to convince myself that if medical school never worked out, I could be quite happy getting my PhD and teaching at a university.

Problem was, I wasn’t happy. While I’m not the sort of person intent on “having to be happy”, I’m also well in tune with what makes me tick and what I’m passionate about. And, well, I still had the dream, the “itch”, the determination to see if just maybe I could now convince some medical school to accept me.

I graduated with my MS in June 2013. I got a job in a local hospital ICU, and two months later I received a phone call from an absolutely fantastic medical school in California – “you’ve been accepted, come now, classes start in three days”!

And thus began my medical education. WOW! What a thrill it was to sit in the amphitheater with my fellow (mostly 20-something) classmates, work on cadavars, and learn every intricate detail of human anatomy. Three months and $45,000 of debt later, my youngest son had a mental health crisis and I was faced with one of the most difficult decisions of my life.

I withdrew.

And spent the next several months helping my son get stabilized, increasing his local support, making absolutely sure that if some miracle happened and I was able to restart my medical education, he would be just fine.

In the fall of 2014, I flew halfway around the world to begin classes at SGU. Considered one of the top Caribbean medical schools, St George’s University sits on the tiny island of Grenada. The heat is oppressive, the accommodations very third-world, and the support about 50 years behind the rest of the world and verging on abusive. But I was willing to do whatever it took to get my medical education. Three months and another $45,000 of debt later, my son had another crisis. I tried to manage it long distance, but it was not possible.

Once again, I withdrew.

Sitting at my computer surfing around Facebook, I felt completely defeated. I started researching PhD programs, ready to permanently close the book on my dream of becoming a doc.

Then I received a message that completely changed my life. A friend told me about IUHS, a medical school that allowed the first two years of education to be taken online. The first of its kind in the world in fact. And no debt.

I was skeptical. I made a list of questions to ask. Then I went on a pretty intense search to see what I could discover about this unknown medical school that sounded way too good to be true.

First, I wrote to my state’s medical licensing board. Were they familiar with IUHS? Would they accept an IUHS graduate for state licensure? I was amazed by their response – not only were they familiar, but they put me in touch with two recent IUHS graduates who were successfully licensed and practicing in my home state.

Second, I spoke with local docs. Were they familiar with IUHS? If so, what was their perception. If not, in general how did they feel about working with a physician who had taken the first two years’ worth of medical school using an online format. Again, I was amazed at the response. A few physicians were already familiar with IUHS and had positive impressions. Those who were not familiar with the school, were at least very open to the format and felt it was long overdue. Another hurdle crossed.

Next, I wanted to address the whole residency matching issue head-on. Rather than rely on the vitriol most often published on student forums by arrogant 20-somethings intent on putting down any alternative to mainstream medical education, I went to talk to residency program directors and practicing physicians who had graduated from what would be considered “low-tier international medical schools”. Very quickly, all my concerns were laid to rest.

Finally, there was the finances issue. With my prior student loans on hardship deferment (combined undergrad and graduate and the two semesters at two different medical schools, my debt stood at over $200,000 already), I was very nervous about just how creative I’d need to get in order to finance IUHS. And, I was blown away. With a very small down payment and affordable monthly interest-free payments, I’d be able to begin again and graduate with my MD completely debt free.

I was sold.

The journey I’ve been on as a medical student at IUHS is a story for another blog post. This post is about what got me from that repeatedly-dashed-hopes place of defeat, to finally embracing an absolutely wonderful medical school education.

Financing Your Medical Education

Medical education is big business.

Just ask docs who have recently graduated from medical school with several hundred thousand dollars of debt.

Or ask docs who have been in practice for years and are just now paying off their medical school debt.

When you’re in “med-school application mode”, one of the things you look at is: Are my school choices eligible for the US Federal Student Loan program? After all, medical school is incredibly expensive, and for most, the only way to get through the process financially is to borrow and try not to think about it til later.

Schools typically have programs designed to teach their med students how to manage that debt. Keep your living expenses low. Live like a pauper. Definitely don’t have a job (med school is a full time ‘job’, after all). Try your hardest to get accepted by your state school so your costs are low – but if you’re not one of the lucky few who make the cut, by all means don’t think about those tens of thousands of dollars in debt you’re racking up every semester.

What if you could get your medical education with ZERO DEBT?

It takes a mind-shift, I’ll admit. For years, I fully embraced the idea that a medical school ineligible for federal student loans meant a sub-par education, poor prospects for residency matching, and basically a last-gasp last-chance last-ditch-effort to become a doc (with a little embarrassment thrown in).

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Set aside for a moment your pre-conceived ideas of how much medical school is “supposed to” cost. Who said a medical education needed to cost $40,000 or more per semester? Who said your debt at the end of four years was somehow ‘reasonable’ at four or five HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS?

What if you could graduate from medical school, with your MD degree, with exactly zero debt?

That’s how it is with the International University of Health Sciences. At IUHS, a medical school that does not participate in the US federal student loans program, you never go into debt. Your education is paid for on an installment plan – payments directly to the university, with zero interest.

Are you ready to become a doc without the debt?

The new world of medical education

If you’re like me, you have a burning passion for medicine. The study of it, the practice of it, the need to serve.

However, unless you’re a 20-something rock star, you may be shuttled aside from mainstream medical education.

Issues such as imperfect grades, a late start, or geographic location all impact whether or not you’ll be accepted into the next year’s M1 class. Then there’s the financial issues. Fears about residency spots. Loud opinions by family and friends.

Pursuing your dream of medical education, however, does not mean going to a foreign country, putting up with sub-par education, or going into debt to the tune of a half million dollars or so.

There’s another option.

International University of Health Sciences started with a dream to create a medical school accessible by all.

  • Top quality course instructors who are practicing physicians and/or current professors at US medical schools, many of whom also help prepare board exams.
  • Patient contact from day one.
  • Small class size meaning one-on-one instruction and support.
  • Board prep starting from the first day of class.
  • Cutting edge technology.
  • NO DEBT.

When you’re ready to accept that no matter what, you simply must pursue your dream of medicine, check out IUHS.