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A Tribute to the Medical Student

- Dr. Ritu Sehgal
from Spandan 1999

Few agonies and ecstasies of life compare with the rich variety and depth of experience, the pain and the peril shared by medical students in their voyage of metamorphosis from raw, ex-school kid ducklings to qualified doctors in all their swan-like white-coat glory. In the initial heady euphoria of qualifying for a premier medical institution, most bright-eyed youngsters do not realize that they are setting themselves up for a trial by fire. The selection process sieves brilliant students habituated to being frontrunners, and brings them together as equals. From being the `brain' of his class at school, the fresher student is immediately demoted to being just `one of the guys'! Thus begins the medical student's long and arduous journey, where small victories are hard won and few, and every triumph just wins him the right to work harder.

Confusion amid contradiction dog him throughout his academic career. Hardly has he acclimatized to the feeling of achievement at having made it to the medical college, that he has to contend with failure - he has to get used to the idea of flunking in exams! But with the toughness and resilience peculiar to his breed, the medical student adapts readily to the changed scenario. He learns to grin and bear it all- the cadaveric gloom of the dissection hall and the equally gloomy, often menacing predictions regarding his future; the somnolent boredom of biochemical reactions and their changeable colours over the bunsen flame; the slimy frogs and sooty drums of physio-lab that leave him with dirty hands and weary spirits, wondering what he ever did to deserve all this! Tenaciously he clings on nevertheless , and masters the mysteries of the "normal" to cross the first hurdle of medical life and set up his date with disease.

The mind of the hapless medical student is a virtual battlefield of emotions, where the clerics of caution and restraint are locked in constant crusade with devils of his youth. He watches his school chums enviously as they celebrate the spring of their lives, while he struggles with microbial invasions and drug pharmacokinetics, forensic perversions and pathogenesis of syndromes. He feeds off carminative mixtures and rabbit ileum, broadens his horizons in the microscopic world of vague and nebulous life-forms, explores the grotesque architecture of pathological specimens, and uses his imposingly proportioned textbooks for mind and body building.

The students foray into the clinical arena and hospital wards is no less traumatic. One by one all his romantic illusions regarding the nobility of his chosen profession crash like waves on the stony shores of reality. On one hand he is inundated with theoretical facts, while on the other, he is increasingly demoralized by the futility of his inadequate tools in the face of human suffering. As all the immutable beliefs of his adolescent naivete disappear like dew in the harsh glare of the real world, his immature psyche and youthful personality struggle to keep pace with his expanding knowledge and graying experience of life.

As he grapples with his own tenuous adulthood, academic hawks wait at every step to quash his zeal and steamroll him into submission. He comes face to face with eternal contradindication: how in the world can he value the sanctity of life and dedicate his own life, to safeguard life, if the zest and passion for life itself are dead within him? Under siege from foes of his indefatigable spirit, the medical student learns to veil his enthusiasm but keeps the fire burning within, his courage bruised but never crushed. Skillfully like a nimble-toed ballet dancer, he where his way through the jungle of mammoth egos, where stalwarts await their prey with tentacles spread and claws unsheathed.

All that the majority of humanity learns about life in its most glorious and gory detail after the age of fifty, the medical student witnesses and internalizes before he turns twenty-five. For all those valiant survivors engaged in making sense of the mess and marvel of human existence, this tribute goes out from an ex-medical student and potential teacher to the present medical student and potential healer - just hang in there kiddo, and hats off to you!

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Copyright (c) 2004, Nikhil Goyal. All rights reserved.