The Privilege of Dissection


A year ago, I was ecstatic about getting into medical school but the first year seems to have flashed by in an instant. It’s been a tense couple of months as we had to pass all the end of year exams to proceed to second year. I really wasn’t sure how I’d performed but I am so relieved to say I’ve made it through.  About one fifth of the cohort need to resit at least one exam and a few students have been “invited” to leave the course.

Looking back, one of the highlights has been full body dissection. Surprisingly, it’s offered at increasingly fewer medical schools in the UK. Instead, schools now use computer based learning, videos, pre-prepared pro-sections and plastination.  In some ways they’re better but they can’t replace the experience of standing over a body, scalpel in hand, carefully cutting and peeling back layers ourselves. Dissection is an amazing learning experience.

However, preservation of a cadaver is not without its effects on the donated body, everything becomes a shade of grey or beige and the formaldehyde stings the eyes. Whilst it must feel different to cutting into a real living human body, all the organs, muscles, nerves…etc remain in the same place so it helps us to build spatial awareness of where everything is – I can’t imagine gaining that from a book or a computer simulation.

The first time we “met” our cadaver Mr(s) X, there were a few nervous classmates. It’s understandable that some people felt faint as the dissection room is warm and the smell of the chemicals combined with the realisation that you are in a room full of dozens of dead bodies laid out on tables can be overwhelming.

Dissection is strictly regulated by the Human Tissue Authority and the school warned us that anyone caught cutting bits off the body and using them in pranks could forget about ever practising medicine. I can’t imagine how anyone could do that as it just shows a lack of respect for the person who kindly donated their body for the benefit of our learning. Anonymity and privacy are also prioritised. All we are told is the age and what the donor died of and any phones have to be switched off as almost all of them have cameras.

With each session, we progressed to removing the organs and studying them to back up our lectures and reading. Each time I was astonished by the ingenuity of the human body. It’s been truly amazing to see how everything is packed so well inside and how everything functions so well together.  No wonder man has found it difficult to design and produce anything artificial that even remotely functions as efficiently and reliably as nature. Millions of years of evolution.

After our end of year exams we attended a funeral service for those who kindly donated their bodies, together with the donors’ friends and relatives. Attendance was optional but the fact that so many students and teaching staff showed up signified that we all had the same thoughts of respect and thankfulness.

So, a big silent thank you from me to you Mr(s) X.

Distractions and Tolerance

Grumpy post today about the things that most easily distract me when I’m studying: noise and smells.

Noise: Sometimes our library is more like a dorm room/hall of residence. Some students think of it as a meeting spot, to eat, watch videos, chat and generally be noisy.  In these situations my headphones come out straightaway.

Smells: I’d purposefully got to the library this weekend and was settled and ready to go, brain engaged, pen at the ready – when it wafted past. The perfume. It was so strong and although I tried to ignore it and concentrate, I was just wasting time re-reading sentence after sentence and not taking anything in.

Another time I caught a whiff of something bad. Looking around I spotted someone had taken his shoes and socks off. Shoes and socks! That part of the library is really warm with poor ventilation so the smell coming from his sweaty feet was overwhelming. Now I realise why there was nobody sitting next to him. If you have smelly feet please keep your shoes and socks on!

From working part-time as a healthcare assistant I’ve had my fair share of bad smells and in many clinical environments it’s part of daily life –  but in a library…? I can deal with noise by plugging in my headphones or using ear plugs. But smells, how do you deal with that?

Grumpiness aside, I wish these things wouldn’t get to me and I guess I have to learn to become more tolerant and develop ways to study in distracting environments.

Bye-Bye Christmas & Hello Revision

Did I say in my last post that we had exams? Well we’ve had another one since then, plus we’ve got a big one straight after the winter break. That is just plain cruel of the medical school. Whatever happened to Christmas and having a rest? So that’s what I’ll be doing over Christmas. On the other hand, it’s a huge privilege to study medicine so I mustn’t grumble…

The digital flashcard program I mentioned is turning out to be productive. It takes time to create each card but only a little more than I’d need to read and understand the material and I consider that time also as study and revision. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the topics which I’ve created flashcards for are also the ones I feel I understand the most. So a thumbs up so far.

Recently I bought the Gray’s Anatomy Flashcards. They cost about £22.00 (~US$35) with my NUS (student) discount card (!) and there are more cards than I thought there would be. They’re split into sections e.g. Thorax, Abdomen…etc and they include a big ring for threading through the hole in the corner of the cards which you want to carry about. So I get them out of my coat pocket whenever there are a few minutes to spare. They’re just the right size for the rush hour commute when we are squashed like sardines in a tin, people looking over my shoulder, they too finding themselves learning about indirect inguinal hernias…

Medical School Exams / How to Learn & Remember?

We’ve only been in medical school for just over a month and already we’ve had our first exam. I was a bit worried about it – (a healthy kind of worry I have to add, as I’d never get anything done otherwise) which is the reason for my absence here. Anyway we  received the results online via our candidate numbers and by gosh – I passed! Phew – another cup of tea now please.

I scored in the top 35% percentile of the year group. I suppose it’s not bad but many scored close to 100% so if you think you were clever before coming to med school then think again! I know that becoming a good doctor is not only about passing exams which is a kind of consolation.

Which one(s) shall I overload my backpack with today?

Only half way through the first term and my lever arch file is full, as is my bookshelf. If I ever need to return them to the library all at once I’d need a truck.

Currently looking at ways to learn the mammoth amount of material before the next set of exams. Some of my classmates are using computer based flashcards and I’m impressed by what they know and remember especially in anatomy – so I’m going to give it a try. Wish me luck!

Induction & Freshers Week

My NUS Card!

At freshers fayre I made the classic mistake of joining every club and society going and believe me there are many, almost anything imaginable. I felt guilty about receiving all manner of freebies, so the least I could do was handover my email address in return for USB drives, medical books & dictionaries, bags, lanyards, pens and chocolates galore.

I’m positive however that I didn’t sign up for the “Harry Potter Society.” Maybe the clubs and societies trade email addresses with each other or maybe they acquired my email by magic? Anyway I’m still getting emails from ‘Dumbledore’ and I’m suspecting a few admissions to A&E (ER) from faces smashing into platform 9 and 3/4.

Enrolling was pretty painless and I’m now a proud owner of an ID card which has my name, my photo and the words “medical student” written underneath – physical proof! I’ve also received an NUS card which entitles the holder to student discount at lots of shops – brilliant!

The head of school gave a talk about “Professionalism” and how we all have to be more responsible than other students so the less said about the Freshers Week antics, the better…

Too Old for Medical School?

‘How old is too old?’ and who can determine that? I came to the conclusion that ‘only you know if you’re too old’. My logic was that, assuming I worked till 65, I’d still be able to practice as a doctor for more than 20 years which is not insignificant and more if I worked till 70 – which looks likely considering what the UK government are doing to the NHS.

However, being twice the age of the usual applicant and with medicine being so competitive, I also worried what admissions tutors and interviewers would think.  Although there’s no upper age limit ‘officially’, I thought there might be hidden or unofficial discrimination.

I felt that the odds were stacked against me. In the end I worried needlessly. If age related discrimination exists in selecting candidates for medical school then I seem to have bypassed it. I hope the offers I received can reassure other mature grads and “oldies” who are thinking of applying. Age shouldn’t stop you applying. Finances, family commitments, what stage of life you consider yourself at or perhaps a loss of job status maybe, but not age. At one medical school interview I was asked a question indirectly related to age: “How do you feel about studying alongside people who might be much younger than you?” but that was it. In fact it was only the admissions tutors at some Access to Medicine courses who were less positive and who thought I was too old whilst no eyebrows were raised or eyelids batted at any of the medical schools.

In short, if you can show that you’re: 1) committed & motivated 2) realistic about the consequences involved and are not going through a “mid-life crisis” and obviously that 3) you have the potential to make a good doctor, then you’ll have a good chance of getting in. Age just won’t be an issue.

How I thought medical school admissions would see that points 1 – 3 were met:

  1. Long term voluntary work and/or healthcare experience and/or shadowing in a caring environment. I think this is important as the experience will; show you’re committed, help you to write a better personal statement, help you construct convincing answers in interviews as well as giving you access to members of the healthcare profession so that you can ask all the questions that you really should have. It will also show that this isn’t a career change made spontaneously and that you made the effort to place yourself in a healthcare environment to experience it for yourself. It takes time to build up experiences with patients and even to arrange volunteering so start early.
  2. Think about how you’ll finance the course, loss of earnings, what it means to immediate family, partner & children. You may currently hold a position of seniority, how would it feel to give that up and start right at the very bottom? It’s pretty scary you know! Consider how you feel about working notoriously long hours, that not all patients get better and how you might deal with making mistakes. Ensure you know the career pathway well and all the steps involved in becoming a doctor. Why not become a nurse?  How would you answer this question in a medical school interview?
  3. Craft an original but honest personal statement, communicate well, be shiny and charming at interview

Obviously there is the academic side plus you need a good score in entrance exams but otherwise don’t waste time worrying about age.

Here’s a nice report about Equality and Diversity in UK Medical Schools by the BMA. I’ve also put a few links to blogs from older medical students and news articles here

If you’re thinking of applying but haven’t –  what’s stopping you? If you’re a current medical student who is older than average I’d love to hear about your experiences!


Just one of the halls used for GAMSAT September 2010, taken just after the exam. An ocean of tables, an ocean of the competition

The September 2011 GAMSAT exam was yesterday. Poor buggers.

I’m glad I didn’t have to go and sit that again.

I sat the GAMSAT twice in 2010, the second time I’d already received offers from med schools but it was too late to get a refund so I thought ‘WTH I’ll do it for fun.” In retrospect I was probably mentally imbalanced.

The first time, I sat the Irish GAMSAT which is held in March each year and is still valid for UCAS applications for two years at UK medical schools also. [Swansea no longer accept Irish GAMSAT so better to confirm with the schools. Edited 22Jan13] . Venues are Dublin, Cork, Limerick but for an extra fee you can take the test in London, Melbourne, Singapore and Washington.

With the September GAMSAT, results go out in late November online by which time you’ll already have submitted your UCAS application (med school UK applicants) and used up your four precious choices of medical school. Sitting the Irish GAMSAT in March means firstly you’ll know your score before selecting the schools and secondly you can use it as a dry run for a second attempt in September – if needed. It’s not the cheapest strategy but if you want to get into med school – well I guess you’ll do anything.

It’s a great opportunity to talk to fellow applicants too. Graduate and matures are in the minority when applying to med school and it can become a reclusive experience so it was quite reassuring to chat to other grads and oldies in the queue and during breaks.

Last September, GAMSAT was held at the vast halls of the Royal Horticultural Society, London – in addition to several other venues. Seeing the massive queue of fellow applicants each clutching bottles of water, pencils and a calculator plus all those desks and chairs inside stretching away into the distance substantiates how many other people exist, besides you, who want to get into med/dental school – I remember thinking: “Can everybody stop applying to medical school please, you’re making it really hard to get in”

Many medical schools use the ‘UK Clinical Aptitude Test’ (UKCAT). The results are given to you right after the test so you can therefore gear your application to a particular medical school which emphasizes a strong UKCAT – (or not).