Sex, Drugs, and Public Health

May 6, 2012

Med School Culture Shock

Filed under: Uncategorized — cbmosher @ 8:35 pm

I.       The Auditorium

“Look to your left,” the little man said to us from behind the podium. Twin snakes wound their way up the front of the podium toward him.

“Look to your right,” he continued his command.

All 128 of us swiveled our heads obediently, even though we knew what his third line would be.  It was legendary and we’d all heard it many times.  He would say: “One of the three of you will not graduate and become a doctor.”

The real message, of course, which neither the Dean at the podium nor any of us in this Med School auditorium would say aloud was: work harder than you’ve ever worked before.  Sacrifice sleep for study. Sacrifice your social lives.  Sacrifice your marriages. Give your fellow students wrong answers.  Fear the professors and their grade giving.  Learn not just the human body, but the entire medical library.  And be able to regurgitate it in its entirety, on command.

But he was cute about it, this Dean.  After all, he had heard the famous saying, too.  He changed the third line:

“All three of you should graduate and become physicians…”

It should have been a relief, but he wasn’t finished.

“…as long as you work harder than you’ve ever worked before, and learn everything we have to teach you.”

He smiled beneath his bald little head, above the brass snakes entwining the brass staff of Caduceus on the podium, and awaited our applause.  He heard only silence.  Our hands were frozen in terror.  The underlying message, after all, had not changed.

We congregated outside the auditorium, as soon as we’d been released.

“Hi, I’m John.”

I responded to the stranger with my name. 

John added with a toothy smile, “believe me, I’m going to make it to graduation.”

I felt a powerful urge to be honest, but instead I just added, “Yep.  Me too. I’m gonna be an Internist. Like Kildare.”

We almost had a moment of optimism there, the two of us.  Then a tall guy with an intensity burning to the verge of homicidal maniac leaned into our conversation.

“You two don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“And you do?” chirped John.

“Yeah,” he pinned us to the wall with his eyes.  “I do.  I was here last year.  Right here.  First year student and – ”

“Well,” I interrupted him, “You’re here this year too, so you made it just fine.”

“Think so?” he hissed.  “I’m not a second year student.  I‘m a first year student.  Again.  Along with eight others.  They flunked us in Physiology Lab and we’re repeating.” He bore in deeper with his eyes.  “You only get one repeat.  The sword of Guillotine – Dr. Guillotine – is hanging over our necks.  Yours, too.”

“Damocles,” I corrected him because it made me feel better somehow.  “Sword of Damocles.”

“Well,” chirped John with a broad smile.  “Good luck this year.  We’ll see you in the study hall.”

The tall guy slunk away, into the milling group.

It was autumn in New York.  Beyond the dark paneled walls of the century-old Med School, trees were bursting into yellow and red and orange across the Avenue in Central Park.

“Come on,” John offered, “Let’s take a walk before classes start.  Exercise is good.”

“Thanks, but I have to do some business in the Dean’s office.  Catch you after lunch.”

When the Dean’s secretary said, “You may go in now,” I laid a letter on his desk for him, then sat in the chair, trembling as he read it.

“Hum-m,” he murmured as he read it.  “Looks like you’ve been drafted.  This is an order to report for Active Duty.”

“In ten days! They told me I’d be deferred,” I tried to say without wailing.  “Told me the physical this summer was ‘just a formality’.  Promised me they wouldn’t draft me.  They knew I was accepted into Med School.”

“Okay.  Okay.  Calm down.  I’ll write them a letter.”

 “I don’t mind going some day, but I’m worth more to them as a doctor.  If they pull me out now, I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to Med School.”

“I’ll take care of it,” he smiled beneath his little bald head. “You’ll get your deferment back.  I’ve got four other letters to write.”

”Four others?  Same issue?”


“They tried to draft four other guys out of Med School?”


“But if I’d gotten a ‘Report for Active Duty’ date just a week earlier, before school began, I’d have been gone.”


“They lied to me!”

“Calm down.  They have quotas to fill. You’ve got other things to worry about now.  Study hard.”

So I left it to him. Not because I was overflowing with confidence in him, but because I knew I couldn’t do anything to change that letter which hung, Damocles-like, just inches above my entire future.

                                                                                              ( to be continued)

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