Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Premed shadowing

I had a whole 'nother post planned in my head, but after I read Kyla's post, I thought of a story that I had to write about.

The story takes place way back when I was just a little premed. Well, truthfully, I was never really premed in the precise sense of the word. I was a math major and chemistry minor and I fit the rest of the premed classes in as electives. My biology major roommate reacted with shock when she found out I was considering medical school, because I was "much too laid back." In fact, among my friends in my chem classes, "premed" counted as dirty name-calling:

"Oh my god, you're studying on a Saturday?! You're such a loser premed!"

"I'm not a premed! You are!"

Of course, then it turned out they all got PhDs in chemistry or became i-bankers (?) and I was the only "loser" who really went to med school.

Anyway, when I declared that I was applying to med schools, I was assigned a premed adviser. Because I expressed an interest in pediatrics, I was assigned the chief resident of pediatrics at our university's hospital. Since he was going to be writing some kind of letter for me, he told me I should come shadow him one day in the NICU. I enthusiastically said sure. (That's how you knew I was a real premed: my ability to act enthusiastic about something I was dreading.)

He told me to come to the NICU what seemed like insanely early at the time, but was probably something like 7AM. I failed to get to sleep before 3AM the night before and was thus exhausted when I dragged myself to the hospital. I accompanied my adviser on rounds, meanwhile throwing a pity party in my head because my feet were killing me from standing so long and I was so tired from getting so little sleep. I was miserable. Then to top it off, when he was giving the history of this baby with retinal attachments, I started getting queasy and had to excuse myself (I had this "thing" about eyes).

All in all, it was quite the disaster. I had lunch and got the hell out. He invited me back but I said I was too busy.

In retrospect, it puzzles me that in light of that truly awful experience, I didn't for a second question my decision to go to med school. Maybe it was because I'd had experiences shadowing attending physicians in the past and found those experiences enjoyable. But this was my first time working with residents and I feel like I should have paid more attention to how unpleasant this was for me, and not just blown it off as a one-time thing that had nothing to do with my future career.

In actuality, med school was much more like that experience in the NICU than any of my other shadowing experiences. I hated waking up early, I hated standing for long periods of time, I hated giving up my weekends. Okay, yes, nobody likes those things. But I HATED those things. Enough that nothing else mattered except my own discontent.

As a result, I spent a lot of my clinical years being miserable. I spent a lot of the pre-clinical years being miserable too, actually. When I got into PM&R, things were considerably better and I'm light years happier now, but I think if I truly knew what was ahead of me when I started med school, I would have taken another path. I think there were other careers that could have made me happy without making me miserable for years first.

As for the moral of this story, but I'm not entirely sure what that is. Maybe it's that shadowing a resident might be the best way to figure out if med school is right for you. Maybe it's that you shouldn't go to med school without making a careful pros and cons list (using different colors and fonts for pros vs. cons).

Or maybe the moral is just: for god's sake, don't be an idiot like me.


  1. As a little baby premed, I think it is very good advice. I would love to shadow a resident sometime, because shadowing an attending/private practice doctor doesn't really teach you anything about the training process and how miserable it can be at times. I've actually thought of asking the doctor that I follow if I could be on call with her for one of her coverage weekends, just to get a taste of the less appealing aspects of medicine to challenge my resolve.

    I understand that becoming a doctor will be the hardest and possibly most miserable thing I ever decided to do, but as I've told my husband, it is the only thing I'm willing to make myself SO miserable for. I'd like to find out how true that statement is, you know?

  2. Well, in the end, you're going to be an attending, not a resident. If you already think you'd like being an attending, maybe seeing how miserable the residents are will help you see whether this is something you can endure. Or it could turn you off of a great field because someone is at a temporarily bad place in life because of their training.

  3. Very good point, OMDG.

    I think it would be a shame if someone got turned off of a field that's perfect for them cuz the training is rough. But there's also something to be said for not going through 7-10 years of hell. That's a long time to be unhappy....

  4. 7-10 years is definitely a long time to be unhappy.

  5. So for me I didn't love 1st and 2nd year of med school but 3rd and 4th year were pretty good! However I went to a DO school without a major teaching hospital affiliation and boy was internship a shock even though a cousin of mine was 3 years ahead of me and absolutely tried to warn me at every chance she got.

    It was seriously the worst year of my life (q3 for an entire year). I am at a large military teaching facility in Pediatrics. I am now a second year resident and life it a lot better but I don't know if I would ever repeat these choices if I had to do it over again.

    I don't think that any one experience could have prepped me more for what it was really like. Although now that the residency hours are changing and interns will no longer be able to work >16 hours things will surely be different for them.

    You have to love what you do, I hope everyday that this really will be worth it when I am finally an attending.

  6. I agree heartily with the opinion expressed here that pre-meds should take into account whether they actually enjoy their shadowing experiences (instead of just trying to accumulate them for the resume) before they apply to medical school.

    However, I don't know if the example was the best one...being up until 3am the night before and then getting up at 7am doesn't lead me to believe that what you were doing was so bad--it means you were tired. I would hate anything I did if I got only four hours of sleep the night before!

    But yes, bottom line is that you should look before you leap. And maybe show up to shadowing opportunities well-rested and wearing comfy shoes?

  7. Anon: you're right, the experience would have been more authentic if I had done rounds with zero hours of sleep the night before ;)

  8. Well, yes, sometimes you will be rounding on very little sleep. but as Old MD Girl points out above, you will be an attending much longer than you are a resident and you will likely be much better rested then.

    So if you're a person who does not enjoy medical school or residency I guess it just comes down to how much you can tolerate those intervening years until you get to attending-dom.

    Personally, I LOVED medical school and got through residency just fine, so I really didn't feel like it was a big sacrifice. But...everyone's different and has to decide for themselves.

  9. Anon- please can you share more details about your experience? I think sometimes the women who enjoy their experiences as mothers/doctors are not represented as strongly as those who are having a rough time. I'd love to hear your story too!

  10. Hey Anon--it's Anon from above.

    Well...to be perfectly honest I was lucky in ways that had nothing to do with me. I was able to go to med school debt-free because of an inheritance from my dear grandmother. That took the financial burden off.

    Then I hit the husband lottery--a kind, wonderful considerate man who was already an attending ER physician when I started med school. He had a flexible schedule and a good salary from the get-go, so when we had a baby my fourth year it was really easy to pay for child care and for him to pick up the slack. My MIL also helps out a lot.

    He scaled back to working 50% when I started intern year, which also helps tremendously--he's still stays home with our little girl 4 days a week.

    So, I probably can't offer anyone advice or any "secrets" since I just got very, very lucky in avoiding some of the issues that make it hard to be a mother-physician. But I can say that I love my job, love my family and don't ever feel like I should have taken another path. By the way, I'm a family doc :)


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