Dr Cooper, Dr van Niekerk and Dr Dhanjee-things you didn’t know about studying medicine

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Adorning a white coat and signing your name with those two letters, Dr—takes more than commitment, gumption and dedication. This ancient, ever-evolving practice requires a special kind of character. One capable of continually producing excellence while dealing under exhausting pressure—all set in a no-mistakes environment. In other words, a career not for the fainthearted.

However, in order to enter the ranks of this prestigious field, one needs to walk the halls of a medical school, obtaining a multi-year qualification.

But, apart from the obvious, like textbooks and late nights, what do medical students deal with, otherwise unknown to the uninitiated? Or better yet, what are you not told before your first day of med school.

Principal Clinical Manager at Mediclinic Newcastle, Dr Bianca Cooper, says that if you study medicine or think about it after matric, you will have many people tell you that “medicine is a calling”.

“You might think they are being melodramatic, but the truth is that it really is a calling. If you are thinking of going into Medicine for any other reason than you wanting to do it with 100% of your mind and soul, in order to help other humans, you should probably do something else.”

You will risk your health, and sometimes life, to treat your patients, she declares. “It is also not necessarily a ticket to riches—wealthy doctors do exist but very often have little work-life balance, and have taken decades to get to that point in their careers.”

With the image created by American-style movies of “that varsity life”, filled with parties and youthful chaos, Dr Cooper states that instead, you will sacrifice your twenties to your studies and watch many of your friends partying every other night, getting their adult lives started.

But, “I say this not to put anyone off, but to be realistic about how demanding this career is and to ensure that one goes into it with the right intentions,” declares the doctor.

Like many professions but more so in this field, studying and learning does not stop with graduation. “Medicine is always evolving; what you were taught in medical school does not necessarily remain true even for six months, let alone your whole career. Science progresses, new discoveries and techniques are made, and we have a duty to our patients to keep up to date.”

But unlike any profession, your mistakes do not result in a simple redo or a written warning. They impact lives, and therefore, as per the doctor, the biggest mistake you have made in your life thus far will likely pale in comparison to the first big mistake you make as a medical student. “It will likely be public and in front of your peers, a professor and a team of academic doctors. You will learn to laugh about it, but you will still think about it at 3 am, over ten years later.”

Furthermore, as Dr Cooper points out, factual medicine bears no resemblance to the glamourous lives portrayed in television shows.

“It is not glamourous, there is no canteen to sit in and gossip about your (likely non-existent) social lives, and if you ever get to the on-call room, you will be asleep in seconds, not romancing Dr McSexy Scrubs. After your first few months of clinical practice, you will be shouting at the TV about how that is not how patient resuscitation works, why everyone is wearing their stethoscopes backwards, and why the patient’s nasal cannula oxygenation is making ventilator noises.  You will switch to watching morbid true crime documentaries to avoid the unnecessary stress.”

Closing off with sound advice, Dr Cooper stresses, “You will become obsessed with Bic Click pens – they come in bulk packs, they write clearly until the last drop, there is no lid to lose, they are cheap enough to not get upset when they inevitably get reappropriated by another member of the medical team. You will reappropriate a fair number of Bic Click pens yourself.”

Further stating that nicer doctors will try and return them to their original owners. “Tough luck if you are the medical student – it is an unwritten rule that your Bic Click pen belongs to any doctor senior to you (literally everyone, from the intern to the prof); always carry extras.”

Providing a variety of facts to bear in mind before diving into med school, Family Practitioner Dr Francois van Niekerk adds, “If you decide to study medicine, you have a 35% chance of marrying a fellow healthcare professional.”

And each student receives an actual complete set of human bones to keep and study during their second year. “So, you end up with a set of bones under your bed….” A fact legal nor accounting students will be able to trump.

Highlighting a phenomenal opportunity presented to up and coming medical practitioners, Dr van Niekerk says that you and three other students get to share, study and dissect a cadaver (donated human body) during your second year.

Nevertheless, and with the above fresh in your hippocampus, “About 12% of medical students faint witnessing their first surgical procedure (with 4x more female than male students fainting),” confirms the doctor.

The focussed mental acuity required in the journey of becoming a medical professional is no secret; however, according to the doctor, “You also learn about 30 000 new medical, anatomical words and terms during the first four years of studying, most of them derived from Latin.”

And yes, keeping up-to-date on medical advancements is crucial, but as explained by Dr van Niekerk, “You’ll learn to use all your senses in making a diagnosis, even your nose will become a valuable diagnostic tool.”

Giving a hint to the inevitable volume of writing awaiting medical students, he says that if you study medicine, you’ll finally discover why doctors have terrible handwriting.

Getting a seat at a medical school is the most challenging element of medical school announces, Specialist Urologist and Robotic Surgeon, Dr Mahesh Dhanjee. “Studying medicine is not difficult. It requires dedication and consistent hard work due to the large volumes that need to be read, understood and applied.”

Moreover, according to the doctor, the actual learning begins once you step into the real world. “One only really starts learning when one has qualified and commenced one’s internship/community service. The certificate from your medical school, however, makes for good décor on your office wall.”

Supporting the statement from Dr Cooper, clearing the air surrounding the reasoning for pursuing a medical career. As accurately stated by Dr Dhanjee, if your end goal is to drive fancy cars while donning the latest apparel from Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton, then rather become an investment banker.

Elaborating further by saying, “Relative to the number of years spent studying, training and maybe even specialising, doctors earn less than some other professionals. Prof Harry Seftel artfully put it to us on several occasions, that to make an accurate diagnosis, one had to wallow in the excretions and secretions of one’s patients. Obviously, this will be rather challenging in Christian Louboutin heels and Cartier cufflinks on the sleeves of your Dior silk shirt.”

At the end of the day, as stated by the doctor, as with any career choice, one must be passionate about what you do. “The face of Medicine is rapidly changing. The risk of litigation (justified or not) is ever increasing. Doctors, therefore, spend large sums of money for malpractice insurance, in some cases amounting to more than one hundred thousand rands per month. COVID has also changed the way in which we practice Medicine. Many patients don’t receive the “healing touch” anymore since some doctors now choose not to make any contact with their patients. This is very sad since Medicine, and the art of healing involves listening, touching, feeling, and caring on the part of the doctor.”

With Dr Cooper, Dr van Niekerk and Dr Dhanjee sharing their valuable insight on what people don’t know about studying Medicine, what are your thoughts?

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