The first days of medical school: A doctor looks back

Brad Britigan, M.D.

Brad Britigan, M.D.

By Brad Britigan, M.D.

Dr. Britigan is the dean of the UNMC College of Medicine and the president of Nebraska Medicine.

With the beginning of the new school year, the energy on campus has no doubt risen a few levels. The adrenaline is especially flowing for the nearly 130 first-year medical students, most of whom are gracing our campus for the first time.

My first week of medical school is something that I know I’ll never forget.

After finishing my undergraduate degree at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. and spending the summer months at home in suburban St. Louis, I flew to Los Angeles to begin medical school at the University of Southern California – thousands of miles from any place I had previously lived and knowing no one in that city of millions. Particularly more disheartening was that the young woman who was to become my wife three years and many long distance phone calls later was still in St. Louis pursuing her undergraduate degree.

I lived in a dorm for medical students on the USC health sciences campus, which for those of you who don’t know LA is located quite a distance from the main USC undergraduate campus. I had shipped only minimal personal possessions to California and didn’t have a car in a city where the car was king.

Without a car, I was pretty much confined to campus. The USC health sciences campus is in East LA, adjacent to the Los Angeles County Hospital, where gang activity was prevalent. If I left my dorm window open at night, the sound of gun shots in the distance was not that uncommon.

Nevertheless, it seemed like every day the weather was sunny and beautiful, but the smog was another thing. For nearly two months, I didn’t realize that there were 8-10,000 foot mountains 20 miles north of LA, obscured by perpetual thick brown haze. Finally, the smog lifted after the rain arrived in October, and they magically appeared overnight. After four years on the east coast, the ocean constantly seemed liked it was on the wrong side of the land.

Welcome to LA!

Even though USC is a private school, about 80 percent or more of the incoming class was from California. Now, nearly 40 years later, I can definitely relate to our nearly 15 percent of students who come to UNMC from outside of Nebraska, facing a new local culture.

USC was not only a major transition for me culturally, but academically. Student orientation was much less rigorous and comprehensive than is the case at UNMC today. As I recall, you got your ID badge, books, locker, and then classes just started. However, I am not sure that any amount of orientation would have prepared me for intensity of medical school.

Once classes started it was clear that expectations were much greater than those of any undergraduate program – the sheer volume, pace and classroom work of medical school was at first daunting. It also was clear there were a lot of really smart people in that class with whom I would need to compete.

The smell of formaldehyde would not disappear. The first week of classes we began our Introduction to Clinical Medicine course in which we began learning how to obtain a medical history from real patients, a skill that I quickly realized was clearly in need of much development.

My best advice for new students – engage with your fellow classmates, develop support systems, and be sure to take a break every now and then and have some fun. Don’t give up on those things that you have been passionate about because you “have to study.”

For USC students, there was an outdoor volleyball game going on just about every lunch hour. As someone who is vertically-challenged and had never really seen competitive volleyball, participation in this daily ritual was probably not something in which I was predestined to participate. However, I did so nonetheless finding that you did not have to be 6’3” to dig and set. It turned out to be a great way to interact with students from the various health science colleges, make new friends and put aside the pressures of the classroom.

I was soon able to develop a routine, and the seemingly insurmountable task of going to medical school became quite manageable and even enjoyable. It can be done – trust me!

I spoke to the new students and their parents at the College of Medicine White Coat Ceremony on Aug. 21. This is truly an incredible time to be a UNMC medical student. By the time they reach their third year and start seeing patients, they will be seeing them in two of our most state-of-the art buildings – the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center and the Lauritzen Outpatient Center & Fritch Surgery Center.

It won’t get much better than that.

So, to our new students, welcome to UNMC. Enjoy the ride. It will be like nothing like you’ve ever experienced and will create memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.

And if someone asks you to play volleyball – or maybe go to the opera – go for it, even if you have never done it before. You might just find a talent that you never knew you had and meet someone who you will never forget.

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