Notes from a Medical Student:

Frequently Asked Questions

For me and my classmates, the first two years of medical school are, as they say, in the books.

And if you've ever wondered how exactly it's possible, during a mere 30-minute nap, to dream about a scenario that seems to last much longer than a half hour — well, that's essentially how the last two years felt.

Certainly, this recently completed first half of medical school was a time defined mostly by questions— long ones, short ones, right ones, wrong ones, multiple-choice ones and open-ended ones.

Hard ones, easy ones, pointed ones, questionable ones and even overturned ones.

There were the questions that were asked of us ("What's the treatment for Crohn's disease?", those that we asked ourselves ("Which field of medicine is starting to interest me?") and, of course, those that we asked of each other ("I'm serious — does anybody know the treatment for Crohn's disease?").

There were also the probing questions we learned to ask patients who have chest pain, who feel dizzy, or who are fatigued. With these questions, we narrowed down diagnosis possibilities.

Indeed, we began to learn to ask the right questions of patients, presumably so that as our clinical rotations begin, we'll be ready at the right time. Most, if not all, of those questions are really just variations of the basic inquiries we posed once as toddlers-what, where, when, and how?

And we often ask those questions in an attempt to answer one far more profound: Why?

Occasionally, the answer to a question comes in the form of another question. Why become an oncologist if it means treating terminally ill cancer patients? Well, why not?

Without question (no pun intended), we were also faced with unanswerable questions. And questions with multiple answers. These often involved ethical scenarios, real or imagined, and the complex problems were actually the questions within the questions.

Many more of those are still to come, I'm sure.

Finally, sometimes our best answers have been mere educated guesses, the only possible response to questions that don't immediately turn on the answer light bulb.

The never-ending questions are no doubt part of the framework of the medical and scientific culture. Without them, we might not have discovered penicillin (or at least not as early as its accidental detection in 1928) or developed a surgical treatment for babies suffering from the Tetralogy of Fallot heart condition.

The questions — and in particular, the drive to answer them — keep medicine moving forward.

Still, as if we didn't have enough experience with questions, we all spent weeks doing practice ones-as a class, we attempted well over 300,000 of them, all in preparation for the 322 featured on the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1 Exam — a little test that usually goes simply by its nickname: The Boards. Think "The Shot" by Michael Jordan or "The Drive" by John Elway-this test is just as legendary.

The exam included the final set of questions we answered in our first biennium, before waking from that 30-minute nap that somehow included our first two years of medical school.

Now, as of press time, as a newly minted third-year class, we are less than 30 days from beginning our clinical rotations. Of course, the time for questions will probably never end.

Nor should it.

But we're out of the classroom and will soon be into the hospitals. And I get the feeling that we're going to start getting some answers.