A Day in the Life…..

Since nothing absolutely transformative has yet happened in my education, I thought it might be interesting to know what my life is like day to day (that way you might understand why I never call you back…). My day starts early, 5:30 am. It’s now dark when I get up, and the sun is coming up as I ride my bike to school at 6:45 am. It’s really a great time to be on my bike; there aren’t many cars on the road, and there’s a sense of freedom whipping down Barbur Blvd, and pedaling through the tunnel of trees surrounding Terwilliger Blvd. Now many of you might wonder why I would use up the precious 90 minutes every day to bike to and from school.

As you may know, there is absolutely no parking up on the Hill. With the medical, nursing and dental schools, as well as the VA, OHSU, Doernbecher’s, Shriner’s, and Casey Eye, all sharing this hill, there is little room for extra parking spaces. I always wondered why this community was created in this remote location, and not somewhere else that had more room to grow. During orientation we learned that the Marquam hill area was bought by a railroad company, sight unseen, and without accessing a topographical map. You can imagine their surprise when the company, back in the early 1900’s, arrived here to see the location of what was supposed to be a train transit station. So the land was gifted by the railroad company to the public, as a place to develop both a medical school and a county hospital.

But I digress. The reasons I bike? First, it gives me much needed exercise, to help deal with the stress of medical school. Plus, I get to review in my head everything that I studied the day before. As I cruise down Barbur and Terwilliger I’m thinking, AOL…..not the ubiquitous internet service provider, but rather a fun mnemonic to help us remember Artery Over Ligament: the the suprascapular artery goes over the posterior transverse scapular ligament, while the suprascapular nerve goes under the ligament. We will learn lots of acronyms that are supposed to help us memorize the voluminous amounts of new information. (In Christine Montross’s book Body of Work, she states that first year medical students will learn 10,000 new words). For example, the terminal branches of the brachial plexus, a large nerve bundle under the collarbone, can be easily remembered by A Muse Ran Merrily Uphill (I have no idea what the letters stand for yet….but I know the mnemonic!!) That’s the problem with these study devices: You still need to know what they stand for!!!

OK, so besides recalling what I am learning, the bike ride is great because it frames my day. The beginning and ending of the day….and the added bonus is that I have a punch card for my commutes, and once I have received 35 punches, I get 50 bucks!! That’s OHSU’s way of trying to eliminate parking congestion on the hill, as well as encourage their students and employees to get their bodies moving. It’s good for me right? I have been commuting by bike now for only two weeks, and it hasn’t yet started raining, and it isn’t yet dark when I both leave and return from school….so we’ll see how long it lasts. For now I am committed to riding, and I have my sweet husband Ronando as a back up….that is, he is willing to drive me to school and pick me up on those days that I just can’t do it. Oh ya, I don’t ride the bus because it takes over an hour to go a mere 7 miles… I get there faster by bike.

Are you bored yet? You will be now because the next part of my day is full of class. Two hours of lecture from 8 to 10 am, where we are blasted with a firehose of information. Right now the class is Gross Anatomy, Imagining, and Embryology – a integrated class that teaches us regional anatomy (all the structures and tissues of a certain area of the body, say the back, rather than learning system by system – the muscular system, the nervous system…etc), embryology (how we miraculously go from one cell after fertilization of the egg via the sperm, to two cells, to four, to a hollow ball of cells, to…..well you don’t need me to impress you with all I know about the first two weeks of development, but let’s just say it’s simply astounding that we are alive, and functioning. More about embryology in a later post….), and Imagining, all those devices that take pictures of the inside of our bodies.

Then we get to relearn the lecture in three dimensions, by dissecting that part of the body that we just heard about. This is the gross part of anatomy, in two senses. First gross because everything we are dissecting in the lab can be seen with the naked eye. Second, it’s gross because dissecting a cadaver is messy. Lots of preservative fluid, fat, a bit of blood still in the vessels…..the process of removing the skin, digging between the layers of tissue, to find the pot of gold for that day, is well, kind of gross. Once we get to the structures we are attempting to find, (and hopefully we haven’t cut them with our scalpels), the work is worth it. Yes, the end justifies the means, but the means is way way way messy.

Any tissue we cut off the body goes into a white bucket underneath our tables. It is imperative that all the tissues remain with the body they came from, as after we are done, the bodies are all cremated, and the ashes returned to the donor’s family. Every day we have to empty a drip pan under the table that’s collecting fluid draining from the body….and did I mention the smell? We all have a special set of clothes or scrubs, including shoes, bra and underwear (well the guys probably omit the bra), that are kept in a separate locker room, because everything, everything, you take into the lab will smell. At the end of the 11 week class we will burn our clothes and shoes. Even your hair smells, although today I’m going to try and cover it with a bandanna to see if my hair will absorb less smell. All vanity disappears when you are in the lab; obviously, as there is no other place I would allow myself to be seen with an Aunt Jemima head.

OK, after lab, which is supposed to end at noon, but will carry over if you haven’t gotten to the lab objectives yet (the first day we were there until 1:30 – now we are faster cutters and diggers….), then it’s a quick lunch. Since it’s still sunny, I sit out on the grass by the fountain and eat a lunch I brought from home. Then it’s study time. I go to the old Library with my books and study what was taught that day. I have learned that your ability to recall information increases greatly when you review it within 24 hours of first hearing it. I study until about 6, then hop on my bike for the refreshing commute home.

12 hours after closing the door behind me, I now open the door of my condo, to see my family, who are all happy to see me. The cats Mango and Shadow meow incessantly. Mango wants food (as always), and Shadow wants to play with his toy. My husband and daughter are usually there since Ronando works from home, and dinner is in some state of cooking. (great since by now I am starving). It’s dinnertime and catching up with Erinna and Ronando, finding out what filled the 12 hours since I saw them last. Ronando made the mistake the first day of asking me, while I was cutting into my chicken breast, what the dissection was like that day. I closed my eyes and asked…please, please, please, let’s not talk about lab while I am eating the flesh of another animal….(I don’t think I finished the chicken that day – couldn’t get the lab images out of my mind). I love this part of my day. I adore my family, and recognize the great sacrifices they are making to support my dream (like doing the cooking and cleaning and housework). Thank you Ronando and Erinna.

So, I have learned something early on about how to survive medical school: one day at a time, one lecture at time, one page at a time, one concept at a time, one word at time. This way I am living moment by moment, which is part of the joy of being alive! Cheers!


  • wow, you are awesome. Im also a non-traditional student trying to get to medical school. Thanks for writing about your experiences. Its hard for me to get a realistic grasp of what’s ahead especially from a older non-trad vantage. I’m gonna slowly comb through your (dense) blog as I can tell you write to inform. You write so much it makes me wonder when they say that you have no time for anything but school work at med school. haha

  • Valerie Brooke wrote:

    Hey Jeff, thanks for writing. Sorry took me so long to respond. Most people say that you have time for one other thing in med school other than studying. For some (like me) it’s family, for others it’s sports (intramurals, or marathons), or volunteerism, or activities like student council etc. You have to have something to keep you from going insane, something that reminds you why you are going to school in the first place. For me it’s my family, and writing. Good Luck, and let me know if you need any advice!

  • Hi Valerie ,

    I can’t remember what first brought me to your blog, but I just discovered it yesterday and have been eagerly reading through the entries every spare moment I get.

    I love your compassion, empathy, and desire to maintain these fine qualities while navigating your way through medical school.

    After some illnesses in the family, I started volunteering at a couple of hospitals (oncology and in the ED). I have noticed that 90% of the residents and doctors seem SOOO unhappy. (Side note: from my layperson observations, I completely agree with your sentiment that certain aspects of medical education need to be overhauled. Nobody should have to sacrifice their own health, well-being, and happiness to help me improve mine. As one of the commenters posted, so many elements of the residency do indeed echo “indentured servitude.” This is not right. We as a society shouldn’t be expecting it, and those going through it shouldn’t be considering it some sort of honor to be abused this way). Many of the RN’s seem overworked and frustrated (though not as unhappy/grim as the residents/MDs). I do notice that the NPs and PAs seem happy (leading me to believe that something about their situation must be more favorable).

    My background is in a field totally unrelated to medicine, but as time goes on I find myself evaluating my week more in terms of what I was able to do for a patient (meager as my contributions are) than in terms of what I accomplished at work. This is leading me to strongly consider a career change to the medical field.

    I strongly relate to your motivations and your philosophy (from what I am reading). I find myself drawn to the idea of trying to become a PA. As another non-trad student with similar values, I am curious to hear your thoughts about this. Was this something you considered? Was there a reason why you chose to pursue an MD instead?

    I want to make a meaningful contribution with quality patient interactions. I value the life I have outside of work/volunteering and would love to be able to maintain a somewhat reasonable work/life balance. I am sure you felt this same way also prior to deciding on med school. In my case, nobody has yet been able to explain to me how these desires lead to the obvious conclusion of an MD over PA school. Is it just that the PA field is still somewhat less known? Or is there some greater payoff (not talking of money here) to becoming an MD that PAs don’t experience which I have not yet understood?

    It is so generous of you to use your precious free time to maintain this blog. Thank you for all the insight.

  • Valerie Brooke wrote:

    I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to respond. In short, there is more than one way to funnel your intelligence and your desire to take care of patients. It is much easier, in my opinion, to have better work like balance if you become a PA. And there’s less debit. As far as I have heard, you make less as a PA (around $80 K) but you have half the debt (only takes 2 years versus 4 for school, and there’s no residency). Though I think there’s more work for PAs in primary care, so it might be harder to specialize. There is no right answer. There are some fields where there are better work life balances for an MD also (my field is one, PM&R), but I think getting that balance is more a matter of your personality, and your willingness to not be the “best”, and to take time for yourself. Good luck in your journey, and thanks for reading!

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