Being lost in (pre-clinical) medicine.

BY ROBIN CHEAH

I’m one-and-a-half years into medical school and I can already say I’ve been lost multiple times.

‘Lost’ is, admittedly, a broad word. It’s a word with a myriad of possible meanings: emotionally, socially, physically, academically, acutely, constantly. But that’s what makes it so powerful. From making a wrong turn and ending up at anatomy 15 minutes late, to feeling utterly overwhelmed by content, to reflecting on what my goals even are – no word has encapsulated medical school quite as well as ‘lost’.

It’s easy to feel lost in the academic rat-race; barrages of content, an increasingly vast repertoire of examinations and symptoms and special tests and eponymously-named signs to not just remember but also understand. One moment, it seems achievable – “I think I remember all of this systems review” – and another moment a revision lecture or practice exam topples all of that down. It’s an erratic tide that rides highs and trembles at terrible lows – the short-term panic attack in a tute where you know utterly nothing –  with no ultimate direction. Sometimes the wave does vaguely point somewhere – “I need to know more about this” – and those moments of curiosity are refreshing when they arise.

From making a wrong turn and ending up at anatomy 15 minutes late, to feeling utterly overwhelmed by content, to reflecting on what my goals even are – no word has encapsulated medical school quite as well as ‘lost’

Adding to the confusion, there are those quasi-clichés such as “preclin doesn’t matter” or “It’s not on the exam” creeping into every second conversation. It instills a constant uncertainty: what truly matters and what doesn’t? Am I wasting my time on things that don’t matter? Am I just wasting my time studying if I’ll learn everything on the wards? Everything academic becomes ambiguous; every assignment is distilled into a weighing scale of effort with outcome. An essay might be pass-fail, but it’s also an opportunity to learn something important – but there are also exams nearing, that group assignment, the new thyroid examination to revise. Is all this theoretical content even important? Doing well on exams doesn’t really matter, right? The questions sometimes pile up into an incomprehensible heap regardless of where you think you are.

But being lost extends to more than just study – life is more than that. Acronyms for interest groups can fly over one’s head, leaving only the question of specialties (harkening back to the “What do you want to study in uni?” of VCE days). Even if there is no expectation to choose or commit or even consider, its ubiquity as a conversation topic makes it seem like there is sometimes. It can feel like a constant reminder that you don’t have goals, that you’re indecisive and God forbid, can coalesce into self-judgement.

It’s easy to judge yourself for being lost, for all its meanings. Being lost academically means you’re not smart enough or hard-working, or that you’re trying too hard or wasting effort. Being lost socially means you’re not good or nice enough to be liked. Even not having concrete goals feels like you’re indecisive. This is perhaps the point where that wave of ambiguity swells into a tsunami that drowns you in doubt. It is truly dangerous, especially when there’s that constant calling to keep revising, keep studying, keep up with the new content and lectures and go to class. It can be hard to stand firmly when you’re drowning like that.

In a way, the idea of feeling lost and unsure grows sobering; it’s somehow paradoxically reassuring to know that it’s the norm

In a way, the idea of feeling lost and unsure grows sobering; it’s somehow paradoxically reassuring to know that it’s the norm. Maybe what one needs is just to put their head down and do what they’re doing, but with conviction and confidence. Perhaps what we all need is to forgo the “It’s up to you” and make a decision ourselves as to where to go and what to do; resultantly, we’ll reap the rewards and pay the prices. Alternatively, you get acquainted with being lost, accept it and understand it’ll be there forever and as a result become numbed to the uneasiness it brings. But those are just two possibilities; the outcomes are infinitesimal, rightfully so for a term that has so many meanings.

Will that seemingly-omnipresent uncertainty ever fade away? Being lost in a hospital definitely sounds like it could happen. Being lost in the content of clinical years sounds more like an inevitability than anything. And it’s not even a medicine-specific struggle, either — there’s uncertainty in university life regardless of course.

Maybe being lost and uncertain isn’t an enemy but rather a friend we’ll get used to.

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