“You’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
Everyone kept saying that. It was the morning of our first medical school exam, and we had about fifteen more minutes before we would begin.
In the lecture hall, there was a sense of palpable anxiety that was both overwhelming and reassuring. We had huddled outside that morning, making small talk, laughing for no apparent reason, smiling and then stopping because we weren’t sure if smiling was the appropriate reaction for the morning of our first real test.
“I just want it to be over.” Someone said it. We probably all felt the same at some point.
“I can’t feel my legs,” someone else joked.
Even though I thought she was joking, I felt my own legs to be sure that couldn’t be a real phenomenon.
We had finally walked into the lecture hall when we realized there was no reason we were standing outside. They had given us assigned seats, and the option to use either a laptop or an iPad for the exam. They had also given us each a single sheet of blue paper to draw out Punnet squares and pedigrees. I mentally reviewed the diseases we had learned and their modes of inheritance. Cystic Fibrosis, Tay Sachs, Sickle Cell Disease, autosomal recessive…
“Good luck,” a classmate said, interrupting my silent litany. I must have been unknowingly staring at her. She laughed, and then I laughed.
“You’ll be fine,” one of the proctors said as he walked by. We both smiled, but stopped laughing.
The words, “you’ll be fine,” seemed like some code, I didn’t understand. Something everyone not taking this Unit One exam understood. We had all studied. I had been studying with my classmates from the start of classes one month ago. Everyday, going over what seemed to be an endless amount of material. And yet, somehow we still didn’t know if it was enough.
There was a heightened sense of tension as the minutes ticked on to nine o’clock. The hall was alive with it and I felt a wave of nausea that threatened to bring the breakfast of Frosted Flakes I’d had earlier. I steadied myself in my seat. I refused to consider battle analogies because that meant that there could be casualties after this. It meant that I could be a casualty.
At the last minute, I had grabbed a pair of earplugs before and I put them in now. There was silence and then I started my exam. Somehow, the time flew by and the test was over.
As I was leaving the lecture hall I met one of our professors and we talked as we walked to the elevators. I can’t remember a single thing I said. What I do remember was his look of concern as he turned to say, “Have a good weekend.” I suppose I must have said something concerning. Maybe the residual nervousness and fear I had from before the test lingered in my voice or my demeanour. I’m not sure.
After leaving the lecture building, my classmates had been alternating between rehashing the exam and admonishing each other about rehashing the exam. The combination was making me nauseous again. I was now with some Ph.D. students at the School of Graduate Studies. I think I was talking about a grant application I was working on. The details are blurry.
“You’re so distracted,” said my friend, offering me her computer. “Do you want to use my computer to see if the scores are up?”
“Oh thanks, but they’re going to send us an email,” I said, absentmindedly refreshing the email application on my phone. Nothing.
I put my phone away and tried to join in the conversation. There was a retreat coming up with all the Ph.D. candidates and their advisors. There would be poster presentations and special guest speakers. It sounded awesome. And then my phone vibrated.
“The scores are up,” I said more to myself than my friends.
I felt a wave of gut wrenching apprehension as I logged into the exam system to look up my grade. I had not felt this way about the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), or about any other exam really. There was something terrifying about this specific test result; it almost seemed to have the power to invalidate my presence in medical school. In my mind, this first test had become, the deciding factor of whether I was worthy to study medicine.
I nearly dropped my phone with relief when I saw the numbers. I was fine. And as I mentally repeated the words that had so often been said to us first years that week, it dawned on me what everyone had meant. It wasn’t due to foresight of the actual examination results or to the collegial desire to soothe our fears with platitudes. Those upperclassmen knew what we had only guessed at; medical school was not an academic Hunger Games designed to weed out the potential weakest link.
The test was as much a marker for the school to assess our progress, as it was a means for us to practice and hone the knowledge we were being given. This test, more importantly, rather than being the metaphorical battle it had seemed, was simply marking the completion of one lap in our marathon. And like runners, we needed the occasional water break, the encouraging cheers and the continued reminders of our ultimate goal. And we had that; we had that in the faculty, in upperclassmen, in classmates, in family and friends.
That we would be fine was true. It was true, because we were not alone on this stretch of track ahead of us. And right now it was a nice, long stretch, with only one lap done. Almost on cue, my phone vibrated with an email reminding us that we would be reviewing the Respiratory Exam in the next unit, and that the PowerPoint slides for one of our lectures had been updated in Blackboard. Lap Two.
About Ogochukwu Ezeoke
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Ogochukwu and her family immigrated to the United States in 2004. Following her graduation in 2011, with a Bachelor of Science in Cell and Molecular Biology, she accepted a Research Study Assistant position at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center where she coordinated clinical trials for the development of melanoma and sarcoma therapies. While working at Sloan Kettering, Ogochukwu was able to explore her interest in medicine and specifically in oncology. She attributes a significant part of her aspiration to enter the field of medicine to the incredible mentorship she received at Sloan Kettering, from the medical oncologists she worked with. In the fall of 2015, Ogochukwu started medical school at SUNY Upstate Medical University. While keeping an open mind to the many paths available in medicine, it is her hope to play an active role in the investigation of rare cancers, and in the development of focused therapies, through clinical research.