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It’s the beginning of April, and it’s hard to believe that the didactic year is more than a quarter complete (especially when you take our breaks into account). It’s been a whirlwind 3 months. The days are long but each week flies by. I’ve written this post mostly with prospective students in mind, as I’m sure you are curious about what Elon PA life is like!

Orientation was nerve-filled, exciting, and a little awkward, at least for this introvert. Everyone was really excited on day 3 when we got to jump into classes. Throughout the room, I felt the relaxing of nerves (or maybe just my nerves?) as people felt more comfortable beginning to get to know each other, beyond the requisite day 1 surface introductions.

In January, we had introductory classes: Intro to Medicine, Medical Physiology, Intro to History & Physical Exam, and Professional Issues. I didn’t really know what I was doing when we started, but I just did the work the best I could and somehow came out on the other side. January feels so long ago. At least a few times, panic would seize me as I realized this is my life for the next two years. “Liz, what have you gotten yourself into?!” Sometimes I miss my life before school. But this is a season, and it is good.

In February, we began the first really big block (or “semester”), which we are still in. The classes are analogs to those earlier classes: Clinical Medicine (the backbone course), Pharmacology, Pathophysiology, Anatomy, History and Physical Exam. Now that I’m in this block, January makes a lot more sense. I have a better idea of the “lay of the land.” It’s hard to explain.

As I sit and reflect on how PA school has been so far, here are my thoughts:

  1. First, I am very grateful to be here. It has been a long journey of preparing, waiting, discerning, praying. Whenever I get overwhelmed, I look to the past and remember how much I longed to pursue a medical career as my vocation, how much I wished for that acceptance letter (or phone call, in this case—which is awesome!), and I am grateful.
  2. It is SO COOL to learn, for lack of a better term, “real stuff.” We already have the basic know-how for looking inside a patient’s eyes, ears, nose, and mouth/throat, and listening to their lungs. We are slowly developing the skills to reason through what we find, what is physiologically going on, etc. I love being equipped with real-life skills that I will use in the future to enter into other people’s lives and hopefully offer them some true help and comfort.
  3. I love how our class works together and shares a spirit of camaraderie. When we had our first practical exam (that is when we put on a white coat and go through a graded “visit” with a patient- including talking to them, examining them, and forming a diagnosis), we clapped and cheered as each round of 5 students went in for their exam. We share notes/tea/sugar/cookies and work together. Some of my classmates are really funny.
  4. Working with standardized patients, or SPs (the people who come in and act as patients for us), is nerve-wracking but really helpful. We get to see SPs basically every week. I suspect that when clinical year rolls around, I will be a LOT less nervous about working with real patients. A 2nd-year student that I bumped into a few weeks ago said that she has felt super prepared for clinic and the preceptors have seemed really pleased with their class’s preparation. Really encouraging!
  5. I like our professors and how they each have different styles. They have been encouraging to me when I needed it personally. I also really like having visiting lecturers because they mix things up and are excited about their fields. I’ve appreciated how the MDs who come to lecture view us as future teammates and I especially like it when the lecturer gives us tips like “this is when you refer the patient to a specialist or not” and “don’t be afraid to call the specialist!”
  6. Some key moments have been meeting our human donors in Anatomy lab, seeing a guest lecturer put a camera/scope down his nose and throat so we could watch his vocal cords move on a projector screen, meeting my first SP, having an SP hug me and tell me I did a good job (even though I was crying), and getting to wear a white coat during practical exams, even if I still feel like a kid playing dress-up.

Some thoughts on how to make PA school a good experience, for what it’s worth:

Learn the difference between saying “this is hard” and complaining…and don’t complain. Of course PA school is hard, and the feelings of panic are real. I don’t think the panic will go away. But if school were not hard, it would mean the education was subparI find it is helpful to admit to myself that some of the material, or the sheer volume of it, is difficult and overwhelming. I let that wave wash over me and I just sit in it, marinate in it for a moment, and then I get to work. Complaining, on the other hand, only increases anxiety, wastes brain space, sours the mood in the room, and causes us to forget the big picture of how amazing it is to be here.

Be humble and teachable. A long while back, I was talking to a friend of mine who is a physician. I remember him saying, after I asked, that one of the “worst” parts of being a doctor was feeling like he never knew enough. Now that I’m thick in the middle of school, with disorders and conditions and so many facets of human suffering swirling around in my mind and heart, I can truly see that there is so much to know and there is no way I can possibly know it all. And that is humbling.

I also think it is important to be humble in another sense: It’s easy to get defensive or worked up when a proctor or SP remarks that I didn’t perform a skill very smoothly and need to improve in some area. But I need and want them to tell me these things. If I didn’t need their feedback, I wouldn’t need to be in school. In addition, it’s freeing to realize that I’m supposed to make my mistakes here with my professors, so that I don’t make quite the fool of myself in real-life clinical practice. My professors are here to tell me what I’m doing that is awkward, off-putting, flat-out wrong technique…because who is going to correct or confront me when I’m a certified PA, even if I really need it?

Along those lines, extend patience and grace to yourself and to others. Everyone—students, staff, loved ones supporting us at home—is working hard and achieving successes and making mistakes; allow yourself the room to make mistakes and thus allow others to make mistakes. Have standards, but also assume the best about other people! Pause to recognize your and others’ successes—and celebrate! (I am really struggling to see certain pulses in the neck right now, and I’m sure I’m driving my classmates crazy with it, but they’re nice to me anyway and maybe I’ll get it one day!)

Learn as much as you can, and enjoy it! This year is short and I am trying to soak in as much as possible. See my next point.

The point isn’t to memorize it all. Yes, I need to memorize a lot so I can get the answers on the exam right, but the truth is, after the test, I forget a lot of that information. While there are several things that I eventually do just need to know cold, there are several facts I just will not remember.  HOWEVER, because I at least sent lots of facts through my brain once, maybe one day I will be sitting with a patient, and they will tell me their scalp hurts when they comb their hair, and the deep recesses of my brain will rise up and yell, “WAIT! I don’t know what this is, but I DO remember learning about this once upon a time…let me go look that up.” What I’m saying is that by exposing my mind to as much as possible, I am expanding my awareness of what conditions and diseases are out there. I will be more aware of what I don’t know and how to find the information I need, and it will come in useful.

As for studying strategies…I’ve started a new study approach since spring break (Oh, spring break! How lovely the memory of you!), so I have little I want to say right now. I’ll say this: If you are better at working your way and reasoning through processes from point A to point B, you will probably find pathophysiology easier. If you are better at sheer memorization, you might have an easier time with pharmacology. We just had a pharmacology test, which has confirmed that I am not a fast memorizer and really need to spend more time on that class.

That’s all I’ve got for now! This was a straightforward post, but I hope you enjoyed it! Thanks for reading!

~Elizabeth MacArthur, PA-S, Class of 2017