As August came to a close, whispers of the impending medical school apocalypse began to travel throughout the M1 class. During breaks, groups could be found lounging outside in the light breeze and warm sunshine attempting to build up a reservoir of vitamin D, or in the student lounge indulging their brains in some last minute mindless TV. We were enjoying what we believed to be our fading freedom and preparing ourselves for the tearful farewell to our social lives as we awaited the moment that the world would come crashing down upon us in the form of torrents of information blasted in our faces from the end of a fire hose. My classmates began swapping stories of going to the grocery store and stocking up on shampoo and ramen noodles for the approaching apocalypse claiming they would have no time for such trivial necessities as shopping come November. This frenzy of preparation was due to one small orange square on our syllabus for August 28. It denoted our first anatomy class, and it was considered the beginning of the end.
When we walked into that first anatomy class, filled with equal portions of apprehension and excitement, none of us knew what to expect. A myriad of questions floated through my mind. What will it be like? What if I get too grossed out? Is it creepy in there? Will I get vomit all over everything at the slightest hint of formaldehyde? Will I be covered in chemicals up to my eyeballs day in and day out? What if I faint? I would always be known as that wimpy kid! What if zombies are real, and they only decide to wake up at night when unsuspecting students are alone in the anatomy lab?
Our professor approached the front of the room, smiled and said “Guys, by the end of the week it will feel like I punched you in the face. But, it will be okay. I promise.” That statement was met with stunned faces and most likely some imaginations morphing that genuine smile into a devious smirk. Yes, we decided, the end of days had come. However, I am here to tell you that if you share any of my initial worries, they all disappear the moment you start dissecting. It is an awesome experience, and it is the single most important study tool you could ever possibly have for anatomy. To quote our anatomy professor, who we all now adore, “It will change your life.”
Anatomy has been hard these last few months, but it hasn’t quite been the disaster we had all imagined. It definitely involves a lot of studying, but it isn’t impossible. And, no one expects you to know everything, especially not at first. I feared that coming in. I had never taken an anatomy course and figured I would be so far behind that I would sink into the muddy, black abyss of anatomy and never climb my way out to anatomical enlightenment. But, that’s really not the case. Everyone is at a different skill level. We found out relatively quickly that some students knew a lot about one area of medicine, but no one knew everything. There is a lot to learn in a very short time, but it is by no means impossible. Everyone at this school is more than willing to work with you to find a study plan that fits you best. If we went to a professor with a complaint or suggestion about the class, it was truly taken into consideration. Many times changes were made to better meet our needs. That is one of the wonderful things about being a part of a brand new school. You have the ability to lend a hand in shaping it.
However, despite all the studying and caffeine consumption that is necessary to get through anatomy, it is important to take time for yourself. There have been times that I have driven home from campus in a half comatose state at midnight looking like I just ran a half marathon through a swamp while being chased by a tornado. My hair would be all over the place. I stunk of formaldehyde, my eyes raccoon-like, my arms limp, and my brain barely functioning enough to hit the brake pedal at a stoplight.
Times like that, when I had been studying straight through the day from eight in the morning, made me realize that that level of radical studying wasn’t healthy in the least. Looking in the mirror, I found my body screaming out to me to let it rest. It wanted a break, and my mind surely needed one. That happened many times, and I found that I wasn’t the only one. A friend seemed relieved when I shared stories of symptoms suggestive of narcolepsy. I’d just be sitting in class, feeling pretty great. I wouldn’t have immense fatigue or anything, but my head would suddenly drop. I’d fall asleep without warning. The drop always woke me up of course, but falling asleep like that wasn’t helping me learn anything. When I discovered that I wasn’t developing a rare sleep disorder, but that many people were experiencing the same thing, I was hit again by the thought that I needed sleep.
I have attached a news article that was recently published by the BBC, but all other major news organizations have posted similar reports. A new, groundbreaking story has come out about a new hypothesis on why sleep is necessary for survival. We have always known that avoiding sleep increases the risk for illness and even life threatening conditions. But, no one has been able to find a concrete reason why. Research conducted in the United States has recently determined that the brain uses the downtime during sleep to wash itself clean of all the wastes it built up buzzing along at maximum capacity all day. Certain cells within the brain were shown to shrink, allowing more room for fluids to course through and wash all of the dangerous elements away, including certain toxins attributed to various brain disorders. It is a very interesting article, and I suggest you give it a look. This article effectively slapped the coffee out of my hands as I went to take a swig with bleary eyes. As cheesy as it sounds, this study woke me up.
My point is that sleep is important. I have promised myself that, from now on, I will get a normal seven to eight hours of sleep every night and always make time for myself. Medical school comes with great responsibility, but we all have to make time for fun or our souls will get grounded down into the dirt. If you push the limits of your sanity for too long with a heavy workload, you will eventually burn out and lose the excitement, dedication, and commitment you came into the medical field with. You will also lose yourself. Life is very short, and you have to make it worth living.
I enjoy medical school, but I also have to have time to spend relaxing with my friends and family. I have taken off at least a day, but usually an entire weekend, every week since anatomy started, and I wouldn’t have survived without that time to let my brain relax and cleanse itself. I know some of my classmates think that there is just too much to learn and absolutely no time for fun in their lives, and I can see the stress radiating around them in a wearisome, dark halo. Stress and lack of sleep will wear you down to the core, make you miserable, and make you begin looking at a subject you once loved in disgust. Sometimes it is impossible, but I try to avoid stress and take enough breaks to keep myself sane. I sleep, I never study while eating, and sometimes I go a little crazy and turn on the TV to catch up on some Duck Dynasty and Big Bang Theory. Life is about the little things, so never forget to throw in some fun here and there. It’s good for your health. Here’s a little lesson from my cat, Rocky. When studying gets you down, take a nap.
Copyright 2014 USC School of Medicine Greenville