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The Secret Life of An American Medical Student

“What are your hobbies?” asked a medical student interviewer at one of the top 10 medical schools in the country (according to US News and World Reports Research Rankings).

“Television,” I responded, as it was the first thing that came to my mind and one of the things I most enjoyed spending my “free” time doing.

With that response, it was as if all my hard work went out the window. It didn’t matter what community service or research I did or that I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from an Ivy League University. The interviewer’s face went blank. You would have thought I just told her that I sold myself for money to pay for school, or that I did not believe in the need for health care reform (the hot issue when I was interviewing that I was asked my opinion on at every school). I could feel her judgmental eyes saying “Television? Is this girl serious? And, she really wants to be a doctor?”

My heart started racing and I quickly tried to backtrack. “Well, I guess you can’t really call that a hobby, ha ha ha (awkward uncomfortable laughter, all while waiting for her frown to become a smile), I also…read!” Obviously, that’s the logical smart person hobby.

While I wasn’t accepted at that school (I’d like to think it was not because of my response, although I’ll never know for sure), this experience and my first year and a half of medical school really got me thinking: What is so bad with being a doctor who likes television?

As physicians, we exist in a bubble, one that starts as early as medical school. We learn to use words that no one understands, write charts in a short-hand that can describe an entire organ system in just a few letters (PERL, or pupils equal and reactive to light) and we learn things about our patients that they would not even tell their spouses. I mean, in less than two years, I have gone from being embarrassed talking about sex to asking people if they are only having sex with their spouses or partners and if they have sex with men, women or both. The changes to medical culture assimilation are so obvious in us, that even our best friends from college – you know, the ones who became businesswomen or lawyers, despite their genuine interest in our lives – do not really understand all the terms we used in a story (and we don’t notice until they ask for clarification) or are not interested in blood and disease and death, and quickly our friendship dynamics change.

In this little medical bubble, we are subconsciously taught that it is below us academically to admit our love of pop culture. We read medical journals, we do science, we save lives…we do not care who Kim Kardashian is. Even though virtually every medical professional I know watches television or reads Perez Hilton’s site when class is on a break, to say it out loud is just blasphemy.

I think this train of thought is old school and frankly, a detriment to our practice of medicine. Sure, it might not be academically challenging to watch the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but isn’t that the point? Isn’t it nice to not think about life or death for a while and instead just shut down completely and relax and not think at all? Without doing so, without finding a way to relax and leave work at work (it doesn’t need to be TV), doctors turn to other methods of destressing like drugs or alcohol (which they do at very high rates). Or, even worse, they become depressed and don’t ask for help as early as medical school, and wind up with an even worse fate.

In addition to destressing, television serves an entirely different purpose for medical professionals. They give us a better understanding of our patients and often, especially in adolescent and pediatric patients, they give us a way to break the ice with a new patient – something better than “How’s the weather?” or “How is your day?” We are in the profession of people, after all, and even though we learn to exist in one, we do not practice in a bubble. To truly understand what people like and are thinking about or talking about, you really do need to read People magazine or watch the popular summer blockbuster. To actually explain a disease process or a medication regime, you really do need to understand how to communicate with every type of person – something television does extremely well. When I was younger, I would always make fun of my dad, who is a psychiatrist, for watching MTV or rapping Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ perfectly at my 16th birthday party and saying it was “for research”. But, 16-year-old embarrassment aside, I now completely get it.

Next time an interviewer asks me my hobbies, I am not going to shy away from my answer. I am a medical student, a future doctor and a pop culture-lovin’, television-watching movie goer. Because of it, I’m relaxed, I’m happy and I can answer the pop culture trivia in bar quizzo better than the best of them. The rest of the medical community just needs to loosen up.

I am in cell biology class and our professor tries to “be cool” and off -mentions something about Snooki’s opinion on the 2004 election and tanning. After a lot of laughter from my class, he asks, “I forget, does anyone know what she actually said?” I am proud to say that in that moment, the entire class in unison said my name and pointed at me, and I’m even prouder that I knew the answer (McCain would never tax tanning, he needs to tan).

You can read more from Jessi Gold on her blog.

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