The Weekly Dose: The MBBS Batch of 2009, in 2009
All I knew was that we had slogged for two years to crack an unimaginably competitive entrance exam; we were the high-scorers, and we deserved to be paraded around campus in palanquins while we flicked through Grey’s Anatomy with desultory detachment.
August 1st, 2009 was a Saturday. A hundred youngsters sat crammed in squeaky wooden seats, sandwiched between parents who couldn’t be more chuffed that their grown-up sons and daughters had made it to medical school. Some of the young men had yet to start shaving. Mothers of women who hailed from elsewhere looked particularly grim.
The orientation session began with the dean rambling through a well-memorised list of the attached public hospital’s achievements; we were bemused, and a little stunned when our seniors - bunking lectures to crowd the back-benches - cheered lustily every time a pioneering milestone was mentioned. A year from now, I would be the back-bencher at a session not meant for me, hooting my excitement at ‘getting’ juniors.
I did not know that then. All I knew was that we had slogged for two years to crack an unimaginably competitive entrance exam; we were the high-scorers, and we deserved to be paraded around campus in palanquins while we flicked through Grey’s Anatomy with desultory detachment.
Most of us never ever cracked that book open or even sought a copy. And the smells of medicine vapourised our delusions of entitlement; the stench of formalin in the dissection lab made our eyes water, the unbottled essence of disinfectant in the wards made us retch, and the buffet of odours from our patients - and from those of us who considered daily baths far too bourgeois - dispelled any notions of breathing an elite, rarefied, professional air.
We didn’t realise, though, that we had entered a cocoon, comfortable in the ways that mattered. For almost six years, we didn’t have to ponder about the next degree, a first job or any other ‘what’s next’. We left home before breakfast and returned for dinner; our day was spent in the common room, sporadically studying. Until I graduated, I never met my next-door neighbours. Facebook and WhatsApp came into our lives at some point, but most of us were blissfully unaware of the political, social and cultural sea swirling around the island that is MBBS.
Some of us began to detest the cocoon in the first week itself, but stuck on; when you visit them for a consultation, you won’t be able to tell they don’t even like medicine. Others decided that they didn’t quite want to be butterflies, and escaped the cocoon at the first opportunity. Almost without our knowledge, the rest of us went through a years-long metamorphosis. Being a doctor is not just a qualification or a profession; it is a way of thinking and a way of life.
We developed exoskeletons; to helplessly watch a patient die before your eyes and then have the stomach to wolf down a full dinner, you need to. We cultivated a dark, gallows humour that permitted us to find mirth even in someone else’s pain, yet reserve the laughter until the pain had been soothed. We became stark realists and incorrigible dreamers. Switch on, switch off.
We struggled with not knowing enough. We are all still struggling. Never did we have a moment of supreme confidence, when we were absolutely certain about our answers to a question, or a preliminary diagnosis, or a line of treatment. We probed others, and ourselves. Eventually, we learned to start with what we know.
Our first academic failures shocked us. Our exams were given with equal parts prep and bluster. We, the overachievers, flunked them with a disturbing frequency that may have had something to do with our cavalier dedication of time to a subject; if it didn’t interest you, you grazed your eyes over a few readymade answers and no more. As I write this, I am on my way to a dermatologist to diagnose a rash about which I am no wiser now than I would have been a decade ago.
We slept a lot - in morning lectures, afternoon lectures, the air-conditioned library, standing next to the operation table, and in the train back home. We realised - almost too late - that our patients were our best teachers. And some of us found mentors among our non-patient, teachers, who gave us the time of day and shared their stories instead of dispensing advice, which still influences who I am, and what I want to be.
The most critical skill we learned was how to wield words. What we asked of a patient, what we chose to hear, and how every syllable of medical advice was revered as the word of God. Our rapid-fire, urbane English was useless; we struggled to become more fluent in the languages of our patients. We studied in English, spoke in Hindi, Marathi, and Gujarati, and learned to listen to things that were left unsaid.
We did not expect to laugh quite this much. At a laboratory attendant waylaying us in the men’s loo to provide urine samples that we would analyse in the biochemistry lab half an hour later. At getting one batchmate to prick his finger for drops of blood that would be examined under microscopes by an entire batch. At holding up male pelvic bones to a gynaecology examiner and reciting chapter and verse on how a baby emerges from them.
Above all, we did not expect to have this much fun along the way. Quite simply, going to college was a joy. We formed friendships with people who were different from us, which matured slowly over long days, over long years, to become a fierce love tempered by steadfast loyalty, that will survive distance and time.
Finally, we found a way to accept that we had somehow become doctors, and to understand all that it entails. And to acknowledge the existence of the dark side of our vocation; I am inherently defensive about doctors, and, at the same time, have more quarrels with the fraternity than someone without my degree.
Ten years after my fresh-faced, naive first day of medical college, a Barbra Streisand song asks the right questions, and answers them the way I expect most of my batch would:
Can it be that it was all so simple then
Or has time rewritten every line
If we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me, would we?
So it's the laughter we will remember
Whenever we remember
The way we were.
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