I mentioned earlier that before coming to medical school I used to be in a graduate student in engineering. I went to a highly ranked school and worked in one of its top labs. When I was interviewing for a research position with this group, one of the associate directors told me that they were among the best in the world in their field. Naturally, I was excited about joining a group that pulled in nearly $5 million a year in funding. Unfortunately, I realized soon after arriving that everything was not as it seemed.
We had so much money because so many professors were lumped together in this group. We had multiple labs where anyone—from undergrad to post-doc to janitor—was free to come and go as wanted. We ran into several problems with this mentality. The first was that we had no accountability. A person could make a mess in a lab and then leave because the support staff (i.e., me!) never knew who the culprits were. I got tired of baby sitting 30-year-olds who would mix acids and organic solvents together not knowing that they were creating bombs. I’m all for building weapons and blowing stuff up. But if you don’t know that putting multiple chemicals together is a safety hazard, you shouldn’t be let out of high school.
The next major issue was the director of our research center. He did some pretty big research in the past and earned a spot on the National Academy of Engineering. Unfortunately, there seemed to be an inverse relationship between his people skills and his laboratory skills. For example, when I arrived, he had been director for 10 years and was currently on his 11th secretary. If that doesn’t scream, “Run!” then I don’t know what does.
During meetings he routinely insulted students, called their research “crap”—seriously, from a 50-year-old man—and constantly yelled at us to work more. I felt like the horse in Animal Farm: I will work harder. By the end of my first year, I was putting in 60 hours of work each week, even though I was originally hired to work 30.
Our director had everyone scared. People furiously scrambled to get as much done during the week as the could. Many of us came in on weekends to run experiments. Every week, each student was expected to give a presentation on the progress of his experiment. Therefore, I had to spend one afternoon a week creating a PowerPoint presentation when I could have been working in the lab. Therefore, I had to spend additional time at work so I could finish everything.
The moment he went out of town, we all took a sigh of relief and many people went on vacation. In fact, our director went out of town quite a bit throughout the year. He was gone so much to various conferences that he eventually lost track of what was happening in the labs. Although we gave him progress updates via our PowerPoint presentations, he hadn’t actually stepped foot in a lab in nearly three years. He ran no experiments of his own, yet by virtue of being the director, his name appeared on every paper that the center published. In fact, he was a co-author on several papers that he never even heard of. He taught me a very simple rule: he who works the least, gets the most notoriety.
Coupled with his ignorance of experiments was his arrogance that he didn’t actually know things outside of his field. For some strange reason, he one day decided that we should move into bio. Before that, I had been modeling the oxidation of gold surfaces. Now, I needed to run animal experiments.
The result was a disaster. We were laughed out of every conference we attended. I didn’t know what apoptosis was until I got to medical school, yet we somehow mentioned “apoptosis” in every presentation and poster we gave. We tried forming ties with researchers in the medical community to give credibility to our work. Unfortunately, our director treated the Ph.D.’s in the medical community much the same he treated students. Before long, almost every outsider dropped off of our project. We were left in the same position we had started almost a year prior—no results and no clue of where to go next.
During the spring of 2005 I graduated with my masters and immediately fled the university. I was gone never to return. When I was offered a chance to stay on for a Ph.D., I balked and said that I would never come back.
I mention this story because even though grad school was hell for me, I think that I was treated with more respect there than I have been in medical school. When I went through my M.S. program, I met students in other labs who were happy with their advisers. To date, I have never met anyone who hasn’t been treated like a child by medical schools. Sometimes I wonder: is it too late to go back to graduate school?
Shortly after I graduated college, I felt the need to get some research experience before going to medical school. I got a job working for a National Science Foundation-associated research center in the hopes that laboratory work would better prepare me for medical school. I was wrong. I’ll save any discussion for my disdain for academia later. For right now, I want to make you aware of the rare engineer that enters medicine.
While most pre-meds major in some variation of biology or chemistry, there are no formal requirements of what subject a person must pursue in his college training. Few people know what engineering really is. Sure, most know that it has something to do with applied science, but the similarities between the different engineering fields end there. My alma mater offered over a dozen undergraduate majors through the college of engineering—all of them vastly different after finishing the core requirements. Unfortunately, medical students tend to assume that we’re all natural geniuses when working with computers. Although I was not a computer engineer, I been trapped in the following conversations:
Med student: You’re an engineer, right? Can you help me set up the wi-fi on my computer?
Me: I don’t own a laptop and I don’t know anything about how wi-fi works. My guess is that you would double-click on the “Wireless Network Connection” icon.
Student: I hear you’re good with computers. What do you think about Dell laptops?
Me: I would stay away from them. The company uses bad hardware and has a history of poor customer service.
Student: Oh, I’ve already purchased a Dell laptop.
Me: Then why are you asking me this now?
Students and teachers (lots of them): Can you figure out what’s wrong with the projector/PowerPoint presentation/sound on this audio file/my USB drive?
And my personal favorite…
Student: I forgot my password. Can you tell me what it is?
I still don’t understand how people can be so woefully ignorant of my profession. I don’t stop classmates in the hallway and ask, “You’re a biology major, right? Can you tell me how to grow a tree?”
There are also a lot of social stereotypes regarding engineers. Apparently, we’re all inept at interacting with others and don’t know how to start conversations with strangers, sell products, or even write coherent sentences. While I’ve met a few people that fit this mold, I’ve come across my fair share of liberal arts majors who are so out of touch with reality you’d think that the mother ship is about to come calling any minute. Engineers were the nicest, genuinely fun people I’ve ever been around. When I think about all of the drama that my medical classmates push on each other, I miss the carefree days when I didn’t have to fear getting stabbed in the back by a co-worker who would start rumors or spread gossip. Sure, few women ever go into the field (that’s one stereotype that is true), but I’ve noticed that engineers are the happiest group of people I’ve ever been around.
While I was in college a friend of mine suggested to me that I become a certified nursing assistant (CNA) to get experience working with patients. The licensing test to become a CNA involves taking a multiple choice test in the morning, followed by a practical exam. Normally, students take a class at a local high school or community college to get the prerequisite knowledge necessary to take the exam. In my state, test takers used to be able to challenge the exam without ever taking the class. Simply sign up for the test and the Department of Health will mail you a brochure telling you everything you need to know.
The written test is fairly easy. The bulk of the questions can be summarized as:
Given a patient with the following condition, how do you proceed?
A. Treat him like crap.
B. Treat him like crap.
C. Treat him like crap.
D. Treat him with dignity.
Without ever taking the class, I’m sure that most of you could figure out the appropriate response. The practical portion of the exam consists of a series of exercises to show that you know how to work with people. I remember looking up the steps to take a blood pressure online, and then winged the rest of it on test day. Surprisingly enough, I passed. (We aren’t exactly talking Step 2 CS difficulty here.)
The year after I earned my CNA license, my state did away with the challenger option. Now, everyone who wishes to get certified must take an accredited class. The move by lawmakers was a good thing as I witnessed my own struggles during my first month of working in a hospital. While I don’t want to use this space to go into the awkwardness of giving my first enema, I do want to comment of one of my more memorable patients.
I worked the 3pm-11pm shift on a medical-surgical floor. At night, I would put the patients to bed and then turn off the T.V., turn off the lights, tell the patient to go to sleep, and then shut the door. I found that this sequence usually made the night uneventful as most patients fell asleep and didn’t bother the nurses with frequent calls.
One night I was sitting at the nursing station when a call light lit up, indicating that a patient wanted to speak to someone. The patient then began hitting the call light frantically—a sign that something was seriously wrong. I ran into the patient’s room with the lights still off and asked, “What’s the matter?” The patient called back, “I can’t see!” as she was horrified to have lost her vision during the night.
I thought for a moment and replied, “Of course you can’t see. It’s dark in here.” I reached for the wall, turned on the light, and miraculously gave the patient her sight back.
That was my introduction to nursing.