Life in Your Hands
I am a final year medical student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), in Johannesburg. This article is aimed at helping the potential Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MBBCh) student with a difficult life decision. It includes the information I would have found most useful before applying to study medicine.
Making the difficult decision
Often the first time the young South African adolescent is required to think about his or her future is in Grade 9, with subject choices. I remember feeling like I was being asked to choose a handful of subjects to send me on a rigid path that would define my future. It turns out that isn’t the case. If you are at this stage and have medicine in mind, I have some pointers. There are essential subject choices (for many degrees as well as for life in general): Mathematics, English and Science. Then there are subject choices that compliment studying medicine: Biology and languages (the more official South African languages you do the better). The rest are pretty much up to you. Choose subjects that interest you!
When I was in my matric year at Pretoria Boys High, few of us knew exactly what to do with ourselves after school. It is difficult to ask the average 17 or 18 year-old to make a definitive choice from a list of university degrees or occupations. For those that remain very unsure, like I was, I recommend two things.
- First, study hard during high school! Good grades go a long way to keeping the options open when it comes to deciding.
- Second, take a gap year. Coming out of matric I had no idea what I wanted to study. Taking a gap year was one of my best decisions. My year was geared towards deciding what to study. It allowed time to job shadow, volunteer, work, explore and reflect on my various options. I learnt a lot about the world and myself, and I felt I was better equipped to make big decisions. Deciding proved to be a long process, but the career decision I eventually made was the right one for me.
To my knowledge there is no textbook approach on how to decide on a career path, but I can share what helped me make an informed decision.
- What makes you happy? What are you genuinely interested in? (Two of the most important questions that must be answered first).
- What are you good at? What are you bad at? (Be honest with yourself).
- What are your goals or ambitions? (Occupational, social, spiritual etc.).
Understand the career:
Collect information from the internet (beware of unreliable sources), job shadow, volunteer, speak to your parents, family and teachers, and chat with students, university graduates and lecturers who know first-hand what you can expect.
The aim is to match yourself with a career.
Why was medicine my best fit?
First is that I had an interest and passion for the sciences as well as for helping people. I knew I was a capable problem solver and above-average at memory recall. Importantly, I had no problem with hard work. I was however, terrible at initiating tasks or projects and had little interest in accounting, finance or the business environment.
The Global Financial crisis of 2008 was also fresh in my mind and job security was an important factor to me. Doctors are needed both locally and internationally and so I would rarely struggle for a job. Doctors are also paid very well from when they qualify. However, I do believe there are easier ways to make money. Doctors (and medical students) work very hard so don’t do it just for the money.
A brief overview of medicine at Wits
The first year focuses on the basic sciences and is spent on the main Wits campus. You do first year full courses in physics, chemistry and biology. The half courses we had back in 2010 were sociology, psychology and a course called medical thought and practice (a combination of medical terminology and some first year university maths and systems modeling). You meet the interesting and similar minded people you will be studying and working with for the next six years. You also begin to experiment with the balance between medicine and a social life, a balance that is continuously tested over the six years.
One of the most demanding years of medicine at Wits. You are now on the Wits medical campus in Parktown. The study of anatomy, physiology and molecular medicine will keep you very busy and very stressed. Thankfully it is also an incredibly interesting year. It left me in awe of the intricacies of design in human anatomy and physiology. The highlight of the year for me was having the privilege to study anatomy through the dissection of a cadaver. A most fascinating yet humbling and desensitizing experience. At the end of this year I managed to find the time to start tutoring maths and science. Most medical students are able to find a balance between medicine and other aspects of life. It is not impossible.
Year III (also called GEMP I)
GEMP standing for “Graduate Entry Medical Programme”. For the next four years the mainstream students are joined by graduates from other degrees and universities. The class becomes an even more diverse mixture of people and ages which adds an interesting new dynamic. The third year is comprised of six integrated blocks that cover the fundamentals of medicine. This includes two introductory blocks and then the cardiovascular, respiratory, renal and haematology blocks. The third year is also the beginning of clinical exposure. One day a week is spent in the hospitals shadowing doctors, clerking patients, helping the doctors and nurses and going to clinical skills sessions. The course is complimented by medical Zulu as well as community and evidence-based medicine (EBM) projects.
Year IV (GEMP II)
Very similar to the third year. A continuation of the blocks: endocrine, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, reproduction and neurosciences. Clinical exposure, medical Zulu and the community and EBM projects also continue. For me, and many other fourth years, the year has special extracurricular importance. The social life flourishes. Many nights out and many weekends away, including to the country’s top music festivals. Medicine is not all work and no play.
Year V (GEMP III)
Things get slightly more serious and a lot more difficult. You now spend most of your time working in the hospitals, and spend one day a week at medical school. You choose one “clinical partner” and you are placed in a clinical group. You go through seven clinical rotations with this group of about 10 people. The rotations, each six weeks, in year five include: Internal medicine I, Paediatrics I, Surgery I, Obstetrics, APC (trauma, anaesthetics, emergency medicine), Mixed I (psychiatry I, family medicine, ENT) and Mixed II (public health, ophthalmology, urology). Most of the learning is through bedside tutorials as well as practical and clinical experience. You are also required to do calls in most of the rotations which can prove very demanding of your time. It is a life-changing year filled with experiences, lessons and exposure not many medical schools in the world are able to provide. It grew my perspective and fed the passion I have for medicine.
Year VI (GEMP IV)
The final year, both exciting and surreal. The rotations continue: Internal medicine II, Paediatrics II, Surgery II, Gynaecology, Psychiatry II, Integrated Primary Care and Mixed (Student internship and Orthopaedics). The responsibility you get given is almost that of an intern (junior doctor). You also find every second person asking where you want to go for internship (for two years), my next big decision.
I believe a great medical student or doctor is passionate and compassionate, dedicated and diligent, empathic and ethical, confident and caring, respectful and understanding, humble and kind, a learner and a teacher, a servant and a leader.
Getting into medicine, studying medicine and working as a doctor will push you to your limit. It will often require you to make sacrifices you would rather not make. But if you are decided on medicine, and have passion for it, you should respectfully ignore any negativity around you and go for it! The rewards are boundless!
I am happy to answer any questions from anyone who is deciding whether to study medicine. I will answer these questions personally through the EduConnect Q&A forum.