I remember when I was in high school at each family event, the most popular question my aunts and uncles asked me was, “What do you want to become when you are finished with school?”. At first, it was a dreaded question, because, at the young age of 18, you have to make a decision on what you want to do every single day for more than 40 years. So in grade 9, I went to a career counsellor. At the end of the session 4 fields namely Medicine, Actuarial Sciences, Accounting and Engineering were on my plate to choose from.
I decided to read up and talk to as many people possible about their respective fields. Medicine intrigued me the most. I remember the first time in grade 10 that I went to an operating theatre to observe a general surgeon. The night before I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep. I still remember that the first day that I wore scrubs, a theatre cap, overshoes and crossing the big, fat, restricted red line at the waiting room as if it was yesterday. In the theatre I was introduced to theatre etiquette, which is; DON’T TOUCH anything that is blue. I watched 1 Laparoscopic appendectomy and 2 Laparoscopic cholecystectomies (gallbladder removal), the biggest challenge was to remember the medical terms. It fascinated me a lot and I knew then that this was exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life. Laparoscopic surgery is an amazing field, you make multiple small incisions and use a camera and other instruments to look and work inside the patient’s abdomen for instance. The recovery rate is much faster than the old fashioned open surgeries. I personally think surgery is so rewarding, for example, you see a patient that is in severe pain (appendicitis) and after the procedure, the patient is a lot better.
I shadowed a lot of other doctors and another day that stood out for me was when a cardiologist arranged for me to attend a triple Coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) procedure (grade 11). It was a 5-hour open-heart surgery. Before I went to observe the operation, the cardiologist said that I can defibrillate another patient. Up to this point, I’ve only seen this in movies, but in reality, it’s a different ball game. I had to defibrillate the patient twice before he was back in sinus rhythm (normal heart rhythm). I felt like a real doctor.
Back to the CABG… I must say that the first time that the surgeons saw the sternum to get to the pericardium (the outer sac of the heart) I also felt a mirror pain in my chest. As part of the operation, they stop the heart beating so that they can work on it. What a weird time to not hear the monitors beeping…. (Don’t worry, they got the heart going again with no problem at all). The operation was successful and the patient was moved to the cardiac ICU.
By shadowing a lot of doctors, I built good networks and now know what real medicine is. I would definitely advise everyone to shadow as many doctors as possible. They will teach you much more than medical dramas.
In my grade 11 year I went back to my career counsellor and I told him that I have a strong interest in the field of medicine. He helped me by guiding me on how to prepare and become a strong candidate to be selected for the MBChB degree. He told me how much community service hours I should aim for. I think it is really important because I know that some people did over 2000 hours of community service, but neglected their academic performance. He told me which university societies to join at a school level. He told me to carry on with my current sport and culture activities. I also asked him how to improve my language marks and he gave me valuable advice which worked.
I went back to him in grade 12 and he advised me how and where to apply. I really advise each applicant to work with a career counsellor. They are familiar with the process and can help you to optimize your application.
The sooner you know that you that medicine is for you the better. You can set goals for yourself, optimize your application, do your community hours before your grade 12 years. I know a lot of applicants that decided in April in their matric year that they want to pursue a career in medicine, and they got rejected. There are always exceptions, but usually, there is not enough time to do all the extra-curricular activities in time and if you do it, you neglect your academic studies.
Talking about community hours. I washed wheelchairs, folded patient files, transported patients from the ward to the operating theatre and back. I attended our school’s outreaches as well as working in a foster home. It is really important to document all your hours. The second thing to note is to study each university’s requirements re the number of community hours needed. Do not overestimate the importance of it. The NBT and academic performance count the most on your application and I would therefore rather spend more time improving and preparing to excel in that than community service.
I should say that deciding to pursue a career in medicine should be your only option. You have to be fully committed. The risk for a massive heartache due to rejection of your application is there and it is real. I know some great candidates that did not get into medicine and it broke their spirit. On the other hand, I know people who did not apply for medicine because they said that they will not get accepted. But in life you regret the chances you didn’t take.
Medicine is not a course for the weak. Your mind, soul and body are challenged every single day. I think of medicine much more of an art than science. Yes, there is scientific evidence that supports your diagnosis and management guidelines, but you treat a patient who has a disease and not just a disease. There is no pattern or formula that people follow, they don’t read the medical textbooks when they present to you. You have to make a decision sometimes that is based on your gut and experience and live with the consequences.
We wrote this book so that you know how to apply, what to look out for and help you to stand out between all the applicants. We want to help you to pursue your career as a doctor and making a difference. We have 4 amazing doctors that tell you more about their field. Edward and I tell you more about our journey and we are open and honest. Go and make yourself a nice cup of coffee and read our book. We are sure this book may count as job shadowing!