By: Son Tran, PGY-1
Son (Peter) Tran is a native of San Jose, CA and a recent graduate of Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine. He chose podiatry out of a passion for diabetic limb salvage, reconstruction, and science. During his time as a student, he co-authored three posters and two research articles. He hopes to continue advancing the field of podiatric medicine and surgery as a new PGY-1 intern at Medstar Washington Hospital Center.
Personal Message: This goes out to the students who are going through or have just ended their first two years of podiatry school. It means a lot that you’d spend time in your life to read about problems in mine. I hope that you’ll find some humor in what I went through. Hopefully you’ll know that if I can make it to the end, you will just as well.
First Year (Year 1)
“Are you ready?”
This question faces me every time that I stand behind a milestone. And the reply is always the same, “do you have a choice?”
The windows of Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine were tinted just enough to obscure the vision of curious passersby. There were two sets of glass doors that met you before the lobby, where the security guard would glance up just enough to verify that you were between 20 to 30-years-old – a student. The building was old, and there was always a faint linger of formaldehyde during the fall semester. Students hurried from the outside to the elevator. And while some athletic individuals would take the stairs, the majority of us took the lift to the 3rd floor. That’s where the classes were.
In reality, for every 10 hours that I spent studying for an exam, 8 of them were spent on my phone.
First year was spent between the room of the 3rd floor and the cubicles of the 6th floor library. There wasn’t much variation. Classes started “promptly” at 8 am, sometimes 9 am, and they would end around 3-4 pm. Between 4-5 pm, I would run to student housing, which was 20 feet from the main building. I showered, ate, contemplated life, and hurried to study for the rest of the day. In reality, for every 10 hours that I spent studying for an exam, 8 of them were spent on my phone. Never in my life did I waste so much time and learn so little. The material never stuck. But still, I sat in the library hoping that out of pity, the divine order of the world would spare me a droplet of knowledge to salvage the day.
The simple reality was that I didn’t know how to “do” medicine. I came from a chemistry and math background. I liked doing homework. In fact, I used to like studying. I didn’t mind spending 4 hours digging through the muddled gibberish of quantum mechanics. But the first year of podiatry school wasn’t studying or learning–it was memorization. It was a game that I never played before. PowerPoints were uploaded prior to each lecture, and students were told to know the material by heart. Occasionally, a sympathetic professor would spare a few “starred” slides, but that sort of kindness was scarce. The material was dry and bland. Our exams were multiple choice. There was no room for experimental thought or arguments. Every question had only one answer.
Honestly, I envied my friends who knew how to study. I wanted their discipline. I wished I had their study skills. The material wasn’t hard, but the tremendous patience required to consume everything was beyond anything I could muster. Nonetheless, I always tried. And to be frank, I never quite figured it out.
Really, it was rather depressing to pull the short straw every day. I reached the end of my first semester having moved forward exactly zero steps. At that point, my loneliness in a new city and the self-doubt corroded my willpower.
My time at home was short, and as much as I loved being home, I would soon have to leave again – or did I? I could stay…Did I even love this field?
I recall thinking to myself “maybe it’s not so bad to be a server again. Maybe I should quit…” The thought was pervasive during winter break when I visited my friends and family in California. I remembered sitting by the window seat of American Airlines as the plane descended to San Jose airport. The glass was stained with the greasy fingerprints of the previous passenger, and there was frost creeping up from the bottom of the frame. The sky outside was cloudy, and the landscape was painted in a muted monotone palette. It was the usual California winter. As the wheels touched onto the ground and my body shook with the unnerving bounce of the plane, I knew I had landed. Home was faraway. I realized this as my legs stretched in relief after being crumpled for 5 hours. My time at home was short, and as much as I loved being home, I would soon have to leave again – or did I? I could stay…Did I even love this field?
However, two weeks was a short time to make any U-turns in life. I kept going.
Second semester started more bleakly than first semester. School resumed its pattern except, this time it pulled no punches. The trial period — however brief it was — of first semester was over. Exams were weekly. There was no time to decompress. Every week was finals week. Occasionally, our friends would round up for a bar crawl to collectively bask in the misery, but the routine of first year pummeled us with stress and uninspired repetition. Whatever you envision of the term “life-sucking,” that was very much my initial experience of podiatry school.
By April 2016, first year began to conclude. Our LEA (Lower Extremity Anatomy) final would mark the turning point, and the remaining time would be a gradual wind-down. Around this period, life began to throw its curve balls at me. There was a discordant mix of personal issues and academic unhappiness. Two weeks before the LEA final, I started to lose sleep. I recall waking up at night and digging my nails into my skin, scratching and itching at random areas on my body. Morning would reveal claw marks and red welts around my armpits and chest. But unless I was dying, I wasn’t going to worry. After all, I had to study. The rash spread a little each day. It traveled up my neck and made its way down onto my belly and around my thighs. My entire body soon looked like it underwent an allergy test except every lesion was positive.
I gave in one week later and saw my PCP. He prescribed me 50 mg Hydroxyzine and 2 tablets of Zantac. He figured that whatever allergy that I was experiencing, H1/H2 blockers would do the trick — they didn’t. Instead, my head took the first rocket to space.
In the morning, I would walk around in a dream state. Reality was distorted, and it all felt like a never-ending hangover. My friends would try to help me. They gave me their steroid creams, anti-scabies cream, NSAIDs – by that point I was willing to blow up my liver and kidneys if my rash went away. At night, I would lather myself in ointment and went to bed as a marinated lump of pharmaceutical meat. But nothing worked. I slept for maybe 2 hours each day. And as much as I tried studying, my incessant squirming and frazzled brain made light work of any effort to focus.
When the final was 2 days away, I knew that I had studied nothing. The disease, however, was worsening. I desperately sought the help of an attending, who treated me because the rash had now consumed everything but my face. I was placed on 3 weeks of Prednisone.
Now, if you know anything about systemic steroids, you should know that “roid-rage” applies to both catabolic and anabolic types.
I stayed up for 32 hours after taking my first dose of Prednisone. Combined with the Hydroxyzine, my whole persona was akin to an angry drunken possum. I could barely see because my mind was so fuzzy, but I was filled with absolute rage. The slightest pin drop would be enough to tip my sanity.
I stared at the blue screen, and my finger swiped on the same flashcard again and again in futility. I wanted to salvage even a crumb of the work that I had put in all semester, but I realized that it didn’t matter.
As you would guess, I never managed to study for that LEA final. I sat in my room at 4 am, the same day as the exam, and I looked down at my iPad. I had Quizlet opened. I stared at the blue screen, and my finger swiped on the same flashcard again and again in futility. I wanted to salvage even a crumb of the work that I had put in all semester, but I realized that it didn’t matter. I could choose between relaxing, calming my mind, and failing the exam or stressing out, going unhinged, and failing the exam. Regardless, I would fail – I just wouldn’t fail the class. Even if I guessed on every multiple-choice question, mathematical probability suggested that I would pass. I decided that for once, I should put my well-being first.
I went into the exam that morning confident in my defeat. To be honest, I barely recall taking the test. I could hardly read the words. I remembered sitting down, tapping on the iPad screen, being frustrated because the letters were dancing around, and finally stumbling out the door shortly thereafter.
After one week of Prednisone, my body eventually became more manageable. My results for the LEA final came back, and I failed as expected. My GPA hightailed it off the cliff, but I passed the year.
Now at this point, I was assured by my fellow seniors (and historical statistics) that any luck at being accepted into a high-powered residency would be dismal. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t care.
Each day was one step at a time. I crept slowly forward. And even when fate backhanded me across the face just one foot away from my milestone, I still walked through that door.
Each day was one step at a time. I crept slowly forward. And even when fate backhanded me across the face just one foot away from my milestone, I still walked through that door. It was cathartic. I had always valued the pedestal of academia. But in the end, none of that mattered. The world would take its course without caring for the petty little scuffles and troubles of my life.
Year 1 was complete. I survived… but didn’t excel and felt I dug myself a hole. Year 2 was on the horizon with a new set of challenges.
To be continued with Part 2 (Second Year) and Part 3 (Third/Fourth Year)…
By: Son Tran, PGY-1
Residency Program: Medstar Washington Hospital Center
Recounting the Didactic Years: (Part 1 of a 3-part Personal Account of Podiatric Medical School)
Student, Lifestyle, Motivation
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