When I started preparing for my MCAT, the first thing I did was buy textbooks. Lots of them. Not just one for each subject, but several, from different test prep companies, whichever ones I could get my hands on. One by one they were delivered to my parents’ home, heavy boxes from Amazon and ebay that I would unwrap like Christmas presents, slowly, peeling back the bubble wrap and cardboard to reveal the shiny artifacts within. Some were second-hand and scribbled in, but whenever I could afford it I bought the brand new ones, which I would snap open, relishing the crack of a spine freshly broken for the first time. The books gave me comfort. Everything I would need to know was within these pages, every equation and process and flow chart that would help me do well on my MCAT and get into medical school. By the end of my shopping spree a small tower of textbooks stood on my desk. All I had to do now was memorize everything within.
I crawled through the books, missing study deadlines I had set for myself, growing frustrated as I plodded through lower-division material I had once known cold. Committing all of the content to memory seemed an insurmountable endeavor. I quickly learned to discard certain books, to disregard suspect ‘guaranteed memorization techniques’ and to work on synthesizing my own methods for tackling tricky passages. I broke down the content and realized what I did and did not know. The pages of the brand new textbooks became dog-eared and wrinkled, but their content became clearer and more familiar.
Eventually, finally, test day came. My head felt so full with knowledge, so filled to the brim with MCAT facts, I refused even to watch TV or read the night before, anxious that one more drop of information might disrupt the sloshing fishbowl in my head. When I woke up in the morning, I ate breakfast in silence, drove calmly to the testing center and spent the next few hours spilling the contents of my head onto a computer screen. When it was over, I left the building feeling lighter, airier, relieved of all that dense knowledge that I suspected I would never, ever use again.
My hard work did eventually pay off. After a long, difficult year of applications, I was finally accepted to medical school, and it was time to once again stock up on textbooks. This time I was more judicious about my purchases, and spent the week before classes speaking to older students about which books were vital, which could be accessed online, which could be borrowed from library or classmate. I felt prepared.
Our first week of orientation at medical school was split up over several days of introductory meetings, as we became familiar with the campus’ support services, teaching staff, and curriculum. Midway through the week, we were ushered into a hall, expecting another lecture on safety procedures or plagiarism policies. Instead, we were given an introduction to what became my first major challenge in medical school: the anatomy lab.
For hundreds of years, physicians and medical students have used human cadavers for education, exploration and discovery. Every person with a relative or friend or acquaintance in medicine is vaguely aware that medical students must at some point disassemble and dissect a body, but few realize how intimate, significant or even traumatic this act can be for the student. While in recent years some schools have done away with the messy complications of scalpels and anatomy labs for simulators, computers and photographic databases, most argue that the only way to become fully acquainted with the human body is to take it apart from the inside out. The cadavers are generously donated by individuals who know that what they offer is impossible for us to ever repay. After all, what gift could be more valuable than the body one has piloted his or her entire life, handed over to a stranger for an act so personal and intimate?
Before our introductory lecture to anatomy lab, I had been too caught up in the thrill of medical school to give much thought to dissection. Sure, I was nervous about seeing my first dead body. But I’d shadowed so many hours of surgery, had seen exposed shin bones and excised gall bladders. Surely this couldn’t be any worse?
We shuffled out of our introductory anatomy lecture and into the lab, where we were told we would be meeting our assigned cadavers who would guide us through several months of class. I had expected formaldehyde and fluorescent lights, but the room was comfortable and more or less odorless. Tables were spaced evenly along the lab, each with a white sheet obscuring a cadaver beneath. Our anatomy groups had been determined by height—so that taller individuals did not have to stoop to accommodate their shorter classmates—leaving most of the males clustered together on one side of the room. As I stood among the young men who had been nervously jostling and joking in the corridor only minutes before, I felt a silence enveloping the room. I put on my gloves and apron and stood with my four group mates around the shrouded body. Then, we lifted the cover and peeled it back.
My first thought wasn’t of fear. It wasn’t of horror or shock or sadness. For a moment I forgot about the gift of my donor, of the reason I was there, of the things I would have to do with scalpels and forceps in the coming days, weeks and months. Instead, my first thought was of that tremendous pile of textbooks balanced on the edge of my table during my MCAT preparation.
I thought of those clean pages, of the thousands of facts I would eventually put to memory, and how even that terrifying quantity of information was nothing compared to the textbook that now lay before me. The human body, I could plainly see, was the greatest textbook of all, and it was now my job to memorize it. I had been so swept up in the excitement of the first few days of medical school that I hadn’t quite realized what a gargantuan task I had just taken on.
I began my cardiology block this week, just one chapter among the hundreds I will face in the coming years. I spend my afternoons in lecture halls and my evenings in libraries, memorizing biochemical pathways and adverse drug reactions. If I close my eyes, I can pretend I am still a pre-medical student, tackling the extensive—but finite—content of the MCAT. I can look at my learning objectives for every lecture and walk into my midterm next week, confident I have learned everything I need to know for a passing grade. But then I remember the room in the basement of my medical school, where beneath a white sheet lies the generous individual who gave me the most precious gift I have ever received. I think of the endless textbook I have barely begun reading. When you start medical school, you must accept that you will never again face a finite quantity of knowledge, that learning will be life-long, and that no matter how many chapters you cover, there is always much more left to learn. I have resigned myself to never knowing everything. And while I’m still only a few pages in, somehow I can’t seem to put it down.
About Luke Burns
Born in Hong Kong to a British mother and German father, Luke spent most of his childhood following his family around the world. Luke studied Politics & Sociology at University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, graduating in 2008.
He returned to the United States in 2011 and enrolled in the Mills College Pre-medical Post-baccalaureate Program in Oakland, California. Luke loves to work with kids, and has been an active volunteer at both the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the George Mark Children’s House, the first pediatric palliative care center in the US. He is also co-founder of Camp Kitchen & Harvest, a non-profit organization that teaches children in urban communities how to plant, grow and cook their own food.
Today, Luke is an M.D. candidate at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. He hopes to continue working with children and to one day serve them and their families as a pediatrician.