Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards

January 31, 2016 § 10 Comments

Out of the seven exam periods we’ve survived there are three that I will always remember. Not because they were amazing, but because they challenged me to my very core and forced me to push forward when I had absolutely no hope or belief that I could. These exam periods were all, coincidentally or not, winter exam periods. I’m sure the weather and short days had a lot to do with it. Nothing stresses me out more than the end of the day in exam period. And in winter, the end of the day comes quite early.

All I can remember about the third semester exam period is anatomy. I set aside 14 days for that exam. Why? Because I knew I had neglected it during the semester (with the introduction of physiology into our curriculum, it was hard to focus on anything else). I expected that I had a lot to learn during that time, but I had no idea just how much it was. Nor did I expect how complex it all was, at least when compared to what we had previously learned in anatomy. Neuroanatomy is almost entirely theoretical, at least everything outside of the macroscopic structures of the brain and spinal cord. Learning things from scratch, understanding them and preparing yourself to present them at an oral exam is a lot to manage in a short amount of time. I was really positive when I started out studying for that exam. I had plenty of time, was excited to only have one subject to study and excited to learn something I knew I’d avoided all semester.

As the number of days dwindled, the panic started to set in. We have a guest room in our apartment that I absolutely never use. It’s mainly used as Skjalg’s office/den. The first, only, and last time I used it is while preparing for this exam. I lived there for the 7 days. I slept in the bed, used only the adjacent bathroom and emerged only to grab food and water and wave at Skjalg. In the 3 days before the exam, I developed a sort of insomnia where I could only sleep for ten minutes at a time before waking from a nightmare. The nightmare was always an exam scenario. An evil examiner, humiliating questions, forgetting how to speak, getting topics I didn’t know well enough, etc. When exam day finally came I felt hopeless and exhausted. I was 100% sure I was going to fail. What happened? Nothing. I got a kind, though demanding, examiner. I got topics I didn’t think I knew but that came forward once I calmed down and gave it some thought. I got a histology slide that I could identify right away. I had a good exam. Some mistakes, but absolutely nothing like I had imagined.

Fifth semester exam period was the next big blow. We no longer had just one or two huge classes. Instead, everything felt huge. Pathology was the monster, then pathophysiology (which included EKG analysis, which I felt so unsure of at the time), microbiology, immunology and our Hungarian final. I’m probably forgetting something, but you get the idea. This was my first time having to deal with so many large classes in what felt like such a short time. I didn’t feel confident in anything at the start of the exam period and was worried that I wouldn’t have time to properly learn anything. I spent those four to five weeks criticizing my study methods from that semester, fantasizing about ways I could improve and praying that I would make it through. So what happened? Again, nothing. I wish pathology had gone better, but otherwise all my examiners were kind, did their best to make me comfortable and to really evaluate my knowledge. I even got the “crazy, mean one” for micro. She was a little tough on me for my mistakes, but otherwise fine; she even complemented me on some points.

Then there was this exam period. I’ve matured enough that I didn’t suffer to the same degree as the ones mentioned previously. I’ve learned ways to quell the panic, or at least limit it to five minutes rather than 2 days. I’m actively working on mastering my emotional self, something I think is important to do now in medical school. This is probably the first time we are under this kind of stress and learning how to handle this version of ourselves, learning how to cope and how to act appropriately and efficiently, will be vital as doctors.

The problem with this exam period was the number of exams and the fact that I put the exams before everything else. I put them before my health, my relationships, everything. I allowed myself to be completely consumed and that is not something that can be done for such a long period of time. Reflecting on this exam period, I realize – and I mean truly realize – the importance of balance. There is no point of a victory if your mind and body are destroyed in the process, if you are not there to enjoy it in the end.

I’ve learned that I’m not good at taking breaks. To be honest, this is something I’ve always known about myself. The difference is that now I am going to do something about it. The way I’ve planned to deal with this is to do all of my “exam period cramming” during the semester. For each new exam, I start by printing out the topic list, dividing the number of topics evenly over the days I’ve set aside for the exam and then going through the topics one by one. I write my own notes, using a combination of sources, and try to finish them so that I have one day for memorization. Then, for the day before the exam, I try to memorize everything perfectly. This is where things go a little crazy. On this day I feel responsible for all of the knowledge at once. I feel as though I know nothing and that I wasted my time and should have done things differently. So, my plan now is to complete all of the note preparation for all of the subjects before exam period, maybe even a couple of weeks before, and utilize the power of spaced repetition. For exam period, my plan is to power through everything in a short amount of time. With all of the work done during the semester, I will only need to review and memorize.

This may seem like an obvious plan, something that I should have been doing all along. It is always my plan at the start of the semester to prepare notes from the topic list, but it always gets dragged out. During the semester, I feel like I become so short-sighted. I get distracted by midterms, weekly projects, research, visitors. I spend time reviewing or writing notes from lectures and not setting them up as topics. Another thing I tend to do – something I really dislike – is that I spend way too much time on one topic. For example, 1 topic during the semester may take me 10-12 hours to prepare. In exam period? I can power out 17 topics in a day. When I have the time, I spend it. So I need to be more strict with myself and exercise efficiency. In our oral exams (and most of our exams are oral), we draw a certain number of topics and have to present those topics. It makes sense then that this would be the format for note-taking during the semester! Easier said than done, I know, but I’m promising myself that this time, that’s not the case.

The best part is that my schedule this semester is AMAZING. It’s quite similar to 4th semester in that the class load is very low. I took 36 credits last semester and this semester I only have 25! I am looking so, so forward to having time to study during the week, to stress-free time at the gym, and maybe some early nights off where I can read in bed.

This is my schedule (not including research, not sure yet when that will be):

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And this is how I’ve planned out my time during the week:

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I want to be more strict with my schedule (i.e. only allowing myself to study during certain times so that my time is used more effectively) and want to spend more time studying outside of the apartment. With this schedule, I’m out at school/gym/studying for 12 hours of the day and then I’m home to relax, read, spend time with Skjalg before bed. It might make this feel like more of a job/something we do rather than being everything we are. It definitely isn’t like this for everyone. I know a lot of people that have done an excellent job balancing life and school. But for the crazies like me, this is something that needs to be worked on. I’m just happy to have the self-awareness and drive to acknowledge and change these things. Better to do it now than later.

It’s probably pretty clear that a lot of reflecting has been done this exam period and in the weeks following. It’s been the perfect amount of time between exams and the new semester, at least for this round. I’ve had enough time to relax, binge watch TV shows, organize notes, answer emails, spend time with friends, etc., but not enough time to get lazy. Over the past couple days, I’ve prepared for this first week of school. Purchases school supplies, organized my folders, downloaded lectures and notes. All of the busy work that takes time once the semester actually starts.

One of my big post-exam projects (that I’ve never completed until now): go through all the notes/papers from the last 4 years:

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All this is going to be recycled! Must be at least 4,000 pages in there:

I’m really excited for this semester. I’m excited to challenge myself to improve as a student and push my comfort zone. I’m excited to get more involved in surgery.
We’re getting closer and closer to becoming doctors now. I almost can’t believe it sometimes. It feels like just yesterday that we started…

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§ 10 Responses to Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards

  • Thanks for sharing! You’re finding some balance amongst the chaos. That’s what it’s all about. Change is good. XOXO!

  • Antonio Fiorentino says:

    I still have nightmares that I am back in high school and that I am not ready for the next exam. And that was more than 50 years ago. Funny thing is that I used to ace my exams, and was for most of my high school days the top student in the school. So it is only anxiety of the present that elicits nightmares from things of the past. Don’t be surprised if you will live those nightmares again 50 years from now. You are adapting and that is good. Remember not to make an enemy of your mind. Cut it some slack. Reward yourself. Among all that stress, try to be happy.

  • otymcowazne says:

    Please don’t throw them away .. It will be huge waste .. Im reading your blog since few last years and I think that your’e notes are beautiful and inspiring! Maybe some med student would need them? 😉 Regards from Poland ❤ Marysia

    • Buda B says:

      Haha, thank you :). I kept everything for anatomy and patho and took photos that I will upload of the “worthy” ones I’m recycling. There were a lot of nonsense, half-completed and illegible lecture notes in there 😉

  • Aida says:

    Love your blogs Bianca. You are an inspiration.

  • Charkie says:

    Love that quote! and the way you’ve grown and reflected in the past few years (and this post). It rings so true that without our health, our relationships, or our sanity, any victory is Pyrrhic.
    Here’s to another semester!

    • Buda B says:

      Thank you so much, Charlotte :). It’s always good to look back and ponder the progress we’ve made. I can’t tell you how happy I am to learn that word! I’ve never heard it before and it is so utterly perfect!

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