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A Letter to the Class of 2018

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When you begin your first year of medical school you will be asked to define what it means to be a "good doctor", and you will quickly realize that this is a difficult thing to do.

A few of your classmates will sheepishly raise their hands and the familiar answers will arise: do no harm, respect life, put your patients first, always do the right thing. Indeed, if you are as fortunate as our Class of 2017 has been, some of your introductory lectures will come from wonderful faculty, such as Dr. George Kim and Dr. Mark Awuku, who will share experiences centered on those very attributes.

But at the end of your encouraged reflection, it will ultimately be up to you to decide not only what a good physician is, but also what will make you a good physician. I promise, and I also hope, that most of you will not arrive upon the answer by the end of your first year. What you can do during your first year is collect experiences. You will begin to gather words of wisdom from your mentors, lessons from your faculty, feedback from your peers, and most importantly, perspectives from your patients; and in the summer following your first year of medicine, you will know that you are not that same person who was seated eagerly in late August, ready to receive your white coat.

As a freshly minted second year medical student (I passed my exams, phew!), I cannot claim to offer the gold standard advice for your first year. I certainly have had some great blunders along my way. What I would like to do is offer some suggestions from the experiences I have gathered through my own first year of medicine - advice that I often forget to heed myself.

First, contribute something. We are lucky to have a body of students in medicine who are extraordinarily talented and driven. And although this may sound like the stereotypical lesson from your first grade teacher, you all have some unique talent to contribute. Over the course of the year I have watched my classmates take the stage in Tachycardia, put on musical performances, write for our medical journal, become involved in research, promote student wellness, advocate for refugee health, participate in student government, design t-shirt artwork, bake, fundraise, compete in sports, and even brew our class beer. What has made our 2017 class great, have been those students who have stepped forward to share their talents, and in some cases those students willing to discover new ones. I urge you to take advantage of the tremendous variety of ways you can give back to your class.

Next, nurture friendships. At the completion of my clinical elective this summer, I came to realize the importance of friendships in medicine. It was on a Friday afternoon that a brief encounter with a classmate led to nearly two hours of recounting our stories of the wards. It was almost as if we were purging ourselves of all that we had seen and done. After two weeks of following very sick patients and their distressed families, it had been a much-needed outlet for us.

You are going to see a lot and you are going to do a lot in medicine. Often your friends and family at home are not going to want to hear about your experiences. It can be revolting, saddening, or uninteresting to some. As hard as it is to imagine, not everyone is as enthusiastic about medicine as we are. The people around you - your classmates, your colleagues, your friends - are going to play an incredibly important role in helping you digest the extraordinary experiences that you will have in medicine. Building a strong community among you now will become extremely important.

I have borrowed this next suggestion from Harvard professor Atul Gawande's lecture addressed to first-year medical students. That is, don't complain. Your first year in the medical program will be demanding. The volume of material is likely more than you have seen before. With all that goes on outside the classroom, you may feel the workload to be overwhelming. In December, you will meet a particularly unforgiving exam week. Sometimes, your small group sessions might fall on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend (the horror!). But when you get together with your peers after a particularly stressful week of medical school, don't complain. It's uninteresting, and beyond that results in everyone leaving the conversation feeling negative and irritated.

I challenge you totalk about ideas instead. Talk about experiences. Tell a joke. You will face difficulties, and annoyances, and systems in place beyond your control both as a medical student, and as a doctor. Rather than complain about them, meet them, challenge them, and change them as you can. We have entered into a field that is both rewarding and frustrating. We owe it to ourselves and to our patients to proceed, rather than to shrink back into frustration and bitterness.

Be inquisitive. With the mounds of information that are heaped upon us each day in medicine, it can be easy to become bogged down; and rather than approach the work with a sense of discovery, you may study in a scramble to cover the extent of the material. One advantage of our curriculum is that it removes the necessity to know everything in minute detail. You now have the freedom and encouragement to explore areas that are of interest to you. You also have the support in place to become a basic scientist, a clinical researcher, or a scholar in any number of subject matters. So ask questions. Endeavour to answer questions. Stray away from the rigid boundaries of lectures in order to explore curiosities. It may result in a contribution to the field, but more importantly, it will infuse meaning into the work that you do.

And lastly, above all else, be kind, not only to others, but also to yourself. You will hear a lot about personal wellness throughout the year. That is because it is extremely important! The way you work towards wellness will look differently for all of you, but in your dealings with others and with yourself, always err in the direction of kindness. It will open far more doors for you than your knowledge, your skills, or your abilities combined.

I hope that by the end of your first year in medicine, you have collected experiences that have been both challenging and rewarding. I hope that you have become engaged in the great community at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. I hope that you have contributed to your class, made good friends, met difficulties with grace, learned valuable lessons, and have ultimately begun forging your own pathway towards what will make you a "good physician".

Congratulations on your acceptances and welcome to Schulich Medicine, there is truly no better place to be.

-Stephanie Mokrycke, Meds 2017