Coping with medical student syndrome

Bad enough as studying an ever bewildering array of diseases is, contracting the rare and debilitating condition currently under revision would be far worse. Oh, the irony! – Epitaph of the medical student struck down in his/her prime by a pathology being studied for an upcoming exam. Fear of such an eventuality is universal throughout the class; “You’ll never guess what disease I think I have now.” “Oh stop, sure didn’t I have a dose of the very same after that lecture last week.”

Despite the reassurance of a common experience, there are always rumours of that student, as well as the general omnipresence of sickness and disease that causes such delusions to become a fact of life for students. In late spring and early winter for the past few years (coinciding with exam periods), this student has, without fail, been repeatedly convinced that a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis is imminent. That long hours spent hunched over a desk cramming furiously may be the potential cause of any back pain is routinely dismissed in the pre-exam state; rational behaviour being largely suspended during this period anyway.

Medical student syndrome: the fear of contracting, or belief that one has contracted, a disease currently being studied. Such is the medical student’s rather dysfunctional relationship with illness, particularly personal illness – a desire and a curiosity to learn about the weird and wonderful, counterbalanced by a perpetual anxiety secondary to the knowledge.

Rather than rely on Google to provide a list of increasingly improbable afflictions to explain symptoms, the medical student can go straight to the really sinister stuff, abusing what little understanding one actually has. While very few students will at this stage present to hospital with their “diagnosis” demanding treatment, one can spend a few days convinced of their illness until the relatively minor precipitating complaint passes.

Compounding matters, however, is the lingering unease that dismissing “symptoms” of a potentially serious disease as delusion could then lead the diagnosing physician to judge one’s inability to recognise the signs before this now all-too-late stage and admonish a lack of attention in lectures. Or express the opinion that, going on the evidence, one probably wouldn’t have been a very good doctor anyway – as a colleague revealed happened to him in a rather distressing dream, culminating in his wholly preventable premature demise – quote; “a walking litigatory time bomb”.  Actually, being sick also presents unique challenges for the medical student. Attending the hospital in which one is based and being treated by familiar doctors is something of a nightmare scenario for many students, particularly in terms of more self-induced/Friday night presentations.

Strategic decisions regarding the choice of pubs and nightclubs have been known to be made on the basis of catchment areas, for the interest of all parties. Furthermore, one may be apprehensive knowing firsthand just the kind of ordeal meted out by medical students; enthusiastic poking, gouging, pulling and dragging, to say nothing of the probing questions asked on wards with only curtains for soundproofing.

The principal engagement of the medical student is being a student of disease, an occupation that not only presents a burden in terms of workload but also other strains relating to the subject matter. Attributing nondescript aches and pains to the most deadly disease conceivable is something of an intellectual pastime for medical students, reflecting both a breadth of knowledge and imagination – all in keeping with a nuanced and most dysfunctional relationship.

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