Never Be Afraid to Say “I Don’t Know”

Name: Jessica Prescott

Med School: Keck School of Medicine USC

Year: Third

1. What technology is essential to your study routine?

My laptop is the workhorse of my study routine. During my pre-clinical years, I used UWorld, Anki, Pathoma and Sketchy Micro incessantly. Now that I’m a third year, I always have a tab open to UpToDate. Unfortunately, UWorld is still a part of my life as I (attempt to) prepare for USMLE Step 2 CK. During college, I had always preferred to work problems and create diagrams by hand, but once I started medical school I transitioned to learning and studying fully via computer. It was great for my time management and efficiency with memorization, but not the best for my eyesight!

2. What is your #1 study tip?

Take in a little bit of information at a time, every single day. The preclinical system exams that overwhelmed me the most were the ones I hadn’t begun preparing for until the week before the exam. I think it’s an absolute must to keep on top of your lectures/lessons for the day, as there is no reliable way to memorize all the actions/insertions/innervations of the upper and lower limbs in one night. (Believe me, I tried… it didn’t go well.) For me, staying on top of the material meant having all the day’s lectures reviewed with relevant info added in as flashcards, and having gone through my assigned Anki cards for the day. When this was done, the rest of the afternoon/evening was mine to enjoy!

3. How do you keep yourself motivated or get out of study ruts?

I think the most important thing to know regarding “study ruts” is that they WILL happen to all of us at some point! I vividly recall one day during a stretch of especially lonely Step 1 studying where I spent the evening browsing alternative careers I could pursue in the field of my undergrad degree. Looking back, I’m glad I stayed in med school rather than giving up during my moment of frustration! For me, exercise is essential to my wellness and is a way to “reset” when I’m feeling mentally foggy. I’m always in a better state of mind after a run or yoga class. When I’m feeling especially unmotivated, I post up in a coffee shop and treat myself to a fancy espresso drink, hoping that the other people working around me will inspire me (or at least peer-pressure me) into working harder as well!

4. What would your classmates be most surprised to learn about you?

I’ve lived in California for almost 3 years, but I still haven’t tried surfing!

5. Who are your mentors?

I’m so fortunate to have had a phenomenal independent study PI during undergrad who introduced me to the world of academic medicine. She made me feel like a useful and valued member of her research group and was incredibly supportive of women pursuing careers in medicine and research. The way she balanced leadership, her research efforts, and patient care was inspiring to me and I hope to have a career somewhat like hers in the future!

6. What book would you recommend to all medical students?

Final Exam by Pauline Chen, MD. Her narratives regarding her own experiences during surgical training caring for critically ill and dying patients are very powerful.

7. What would you be doing if you weren’t in medical school?

Both my parents are engineers, and I grew up attending space camp nearly every summer. (Nerd!) If I weren’t in medical school my dream job would be to work for NASA or JPL as an aerospace engineer.

8. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far in medical school?

That everyone is on their own journey. Just because one person gives the impression that they study 26 hours a day and have 14 JAMA publications, that doesn’t mean you should feel inferior about your own goals, achievements, and motivations! I’ve also found that if I involve myself in activities and projects for which I have a genuine interest, I treat them more like something that brings meaning to my life rather than a thing that adds a line to my CV.

9. What is your curriculum like at Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California?

I’d say our curriculum is pretty traditional. The first two years are organ system-based and didactic in nature, but we do get to see patients in the hospital one morning a week as part of our Introduction to Clinical Medicine course. After we tackle the beast known as USMLE Step 1 during the summer after MS2, we are off to the wards for clinical clerkships!

10. What was your most memorable “first” experience in medical school?

By the end of my general surgery clerkship I’d seen a fair number of laparoscopic appendectomies, but I was absolutely shocked when the senior resident handed me the knife to make the first incision! I honestly thought he believed I was someone else, and said “I don’t think this is for me…” but he told me to go ahead and make the cut. I ended up barely piercing the dermis on my first pass, human skin is a lot tougher than I gave it credit for! I also got to introduce one of the trochars into the abdomen, pull out the specimen bag with the appendix in it, and suture one of the port holes closed. It was the most involved I ever was in any surgery I scrubbed.

11. How are the topics of burnout, wellness, and work-life balance addressed at your school?

I am so happy to be at Keck, as there is a growing awareness that in order to take care of our patients and be successful future physicians, we need to take care of ourselves first. We have two clinical psychologists on staff who see medical students exclusively, and have an anonymous student-run newsletter where students can submit their academic/personal concerns for advice from a peer counselor. I think the thing that has contributed most to my work-life balance during third year is the presence of “Wellness Days” on clerkships. Essentially, we get one weekday guaranteed free of clinical duties per clerkship (in addition to our scheduled days off) to take care of our own doctor’s appointments, errands, etc.

12. How can medical students better support each other inside and outside of the classroom?

I think that we need to acknowledge that while medicine is a field that tends to attract competitive, type-A perfectionists, the practice of medicine itself is not a zero-sum game. Being able to celebrate one another’s successes without feeling inferior or feeling the need to “one-up” each other would lead to a much healthier environment, especially during graded clinical rotations.

13. If you’ve started rotations, which rotation has been your favorite? Is it what you expected it would be?

I absolutely loved my Family Medicine rotation. I wasn’t initially interested in primary care when I began medical school, but I was inspired by many of my preceptors who were intelligent, caring, compassionate physicians genuinely interested in their patients’ wellbeing. I also loved the wide scope of practice. Being able to counsel young women on contraceptive options, provide prenatal care, manage an older adult’s chronic conditions, talk about mental health, and examine a sports injury in the same day ensured that I was certainly never bored!

14. What patient will you never forget?

On my neurology rotation, I had a young woman with a very atypical constellation of symptoms that none of the consulting services could make fit into one unifying diagnosis. Even though her case was intellectually stimulating, I couldn’t distance myself from what I saw when a walked into her room: a young, previously healthy college student who was now very sick. She ended up having to be intubated and transferred to the ICU. Even with the breathing tube in place — restricted to communicating via a small whiteboard — she remained interactive and hopeful. I looked forward to checking in on her early each morning. When she recovered and was extubated, I celebrated with her family and was able to speak with her once again. Being a part of her case was extraordinarily rewarding.

15. What is the best advice a resident/attending gave you?

Regarding third year: Always be honest, and never be afraid to say “I don’t know” or ask for help when you need it.

16. Do you have any for tips on being on-call?

The first thing required for a good call night is acceptance. Accepting that you will not be sleeping in your own bed, that is! It doesn’t make the reality of overnight call any less painful, but once you realize that you and your team are all missing out on sleep and the creature comforts of being at home, it becomes more of a bonding experience. Practically, I always preferred to bring my own travel pillow and throw blanket, as our call room beds are made with patient linens that likely had god-knows-what stained on them in their previous life. I also always brought a toothbrush with me on 30-hour call — more for the sake of my colleagues and patients than anyone else!

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