Chasing the future

There is life beyond your high-school exams

Phoebe Gee 14 June 2015

Study mate: the author and friend

I saw for the first time how to conduct oneself in a lab, and how to use large pieces of equipment like incubators, rockers and ultracentrifuges, which all look rather like catalogue items from an IKEA of some dystopian future

Sometimes when you choose to follow a career path that is particularly difficult, even if you know how hard it will be, it will still be too easy to lose sight of what you set out to do beneath all the work along the way.

This is what has happened to me over this past academic year. I am 17 years old studying in the United Kingdom. I have just completed my AS Level (high school) exams, and am applying to university this autumn to study Medicine. I have been set on doing a medical degree for at least four years now, so I am quite aware of how challenging it will be, and was prepared to work as hard as needed from my first term of sixth form in September 2014.

However, in such a new environment, surrounded by people I had never met before, with the typical back-breaking workload that comes with my ambitions, I began to struggle. I found it immensely difficult to make friends, and was going through an emotional rough patch anyway. The work, the loneliness and the winter gloom (woo, England) took their toll on me.

After the first five months or so, however, things began to improve a little. I finally found friends in a group of kids who accepted me, the sun was making more appearances and I was getting the hang of my work (somewhat) at last. Unfortunately, one thing was still missing; I no longer enjoyed what I was doing. I treated my subjects like a chore, like a nine-to-five job with low pay. I would wait eagerly for each day to be over. A normal day would go as follows:

(a) Drag my sorry carcass out of bed.

(b) Run for the bus.

(c) Arrive at school.

(d) Sit through an assembly about revision and how to ace exams, which although offering some helpful tips, still manages to make us all feel more conscious of our impending doom.

(e) Try not to make eye contact with the teacher and PRAY TO EVERY CONCEIVABLE DEITY that they don't ask about homework.

(f) Try to find relevant notes in the reams and reams of paper that build up in my bags over the course of minutes; sometimes I'm worried environmentalists will hunt me down for keeping half a rainforest on my back.

(g) Try to get through the rest of my lessons without spacing out (this step always fails).

(h) Don't cry (this step never works either).

(i) Think happy thoughts (pfft).

(j) Go home and procrastinate until crippling guilt and the fear of inadequacy force me to potter around for two hours wondering where the holy flying bumnuggets I left my Chemistry notes.

(k) Go to bed relieved that I have a few hours' rest from this nonsense.

(l) Return to step (a).

I had forgotten what I was doing it all for. Some part of me knew this, but I was too demoralised to do anything about it. Sometimes I would think of how the motivated, confident me from the end of year eleven, with perfect GCSE grades and self-esteem would despair at the present me, gibbering in a corner. But of course, I just kept going through the motions, stumbling along a course I had laid out when I actually had a rewarding end goal in mind. Along this course was work experience, which is something essential for anyone who even dares to think of going on the impossible quest for a place at medical school. It was the work experience that then changed my perspective.

The first formative part of this change was some laboratory stuff which took place over the Easter holidays. I was lucky enough (with the help of Professor Stephen Curry, who I'd like to thank) to secure three days of work experience in the virology department of Imperial College London, under Professor Wendy Barclay (who is fabulous and to whom I am immensely grateful for granting me this opportunity). Under the supervision of a patient post-doc and other assorted smart people who ensured that I didn't start a pandemic, I carried out an experiment, over the first two days, to test the effect of a new antiviral drug on viral RNA polymerase. On my final day, I carried out a polymerase chain reaction. Although the whole experience confirmed the stereotype that subjects like virology consist basically of moving small amounts of colourless liquid from one place to the other, it was very interesting. I saw for the first time how to conduct oneself in a lab, the conditions in which cells are cultured and how to use large pieces of equipment like incubators, rockers and ultracentrifuges, which all look rather like catalogue items from an IKEA of some dystopian future.

The second part of this magical journey of re-discovery was a four-day placement at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, mid exam-time, during the half-term holiday. Each day was spent in a different department (which made navigation somewhat difficult, but at least it familiarised me with how enormous and busy hospitals are). On the first day, I was in opthalmology. Much to my delight on the first and second days I observed plenty of operations: I have always found people's innards and what my dad calls 'the application of power tools to human flesh' fascinating for reasons I struggle to describe. The closest I've come is that the human body is like a complex machine, but unlike a car or a plane or a computer, its workings are not dull, predictable and grey, but are colourful, squishy and subject to such variation and randomness that are not present in other machines - cars do not bleed, cars do not contract cancer, nor are they subject to genetics.

On my first day at the hospital, I observed a cataract being removed, and another patient having their retina re-attached in six places. On the second day, I shadowed an anaesthetist in the urology department, and as well as seeing patients being placed under local and general anaesthetic, I saw things such as tumours being removed from the ureters, bladder and kidneys, prostate tissue being shaved away using a current passed through a wire (this happened to a patient whose prostate was so swollen that he couldn't pee, poor guy), and someone being cut open in order to investigate an obstruction between the kidney and the ureter. This operation was particularly interesting to me, because whereas I had watched all previous operations that week on a screen (although I was still in the theatre), this was the first for which I sat next to the surgeon and his assistant and watched with my own eyes as the patient was cut open. I had to make quite an effort to prevent myself from squealing with joy. The surgeon was even courteous enough to step a little to the side to show me the hole leading in to the kidney! In addition, it was quite fascinating that the patient had a birth defect which meant that one of their kidneys was still in the pelvis, and had never moved up with age. Another highlight of being in the operating theatre, aside from the operations themselves, is that it is socially acceptable to wear Crocs.

On my third day, I was in Geriatrics, in which I learned first hand about palliative care, caring for the elderly in general and ward rounds. I followed a doctor and junior doctor on a ward round, and despite the fact it took around two-and-a-half hours, I enjoyed meeting the patients and seeing how the doctor and junior doctor talked with them about their health. Later in the day, one patient agreed to talk to me. The junior doctor asked me to go in and ask her about things such as her symptoms, her medication and the quality of her hospital stay so far; questions that I would ask if I were in his role. The patient and I had a very enjoyable conversation: as well as asking the necessary questions we just had a nice chat about travel, our families and education; I even made her laugh, which was one of my favourite moments of that day. My fourth day was spent in the radiology department. Although I am not a big fan of physics, it was still a fun day: I saw the enormous doughnuts that are MRI and CT scanners, and talked with some of the staff about career ambitions.

After these two experiences, I am more sure than I ever have been about applying for Medicine. In fact, on the day that I am writing this, I have booked a date for my UKCAT exam. I will approach getting into medical school with the same attitude that I started out with: it probably won't happen, but it definitely won't if I don't try, which I would certainly regret. This time, however, I won't forget why I want to do it so badly, and I will remember that the hours of looking for lost notes and crying over particularly horrible exams will, hopefully, be worthwhile.