The Challenge of Knowing Too Much, and Too Little

Commentator Julie Rosenthal recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine. Four years ago, when she started medical training, she thought she was getting sick. She reflects on how she coped with her illness and the challenge of being a medical student.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Commentator Julie Rosenthal just finished medical school. She's been spending time reflecting on her experiences during those four years - in particular, a curious ailment she contracted while studying.

Ms. JULIE ROSENTHAL (Commentator, Doctor): It all started during our brain and behavior class. I began to have headaches while studying late into the night. They were probably nothing, but they might be a tumor or, worse yet, Eastern equine encephalitis. What if these headaches were from meningitis? The flashing lights I started to see were a sure sign a tumor was growing inside my head, smushing important brain structures. Several expensive tests later, I had my diagnosis: medical student syndrome. I had a bad case.

My condition worsened as I entered my clinical rotations. Every cold became pneumonia. Each stomach pain was surely an ulcer. Every rash or high temperature was the rare tsutsu gamushi fever. It's found mostly in Asia and the Western Pacific Islands, but there's always a first case.

Medical student syndrome hits many poor medical students during their years in school. We learn about diseases and then we are sure that we have them. We become hyper-vigilant about every tingle, every racing heartbeat. My father had warned me that this might happen. He, too, suffered from this dreadful disease, only he had medical student syndrome by proxy. He thought my mother had all the diseases he studied. She had a swollen gland that could only be due to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and a heart murmur that was definitely going to need emergency surgery. He has never lived it down.

It's a common ailment. We learn so much in medical school about what can go wrong, that it's hard to realize that anything can actually go right. I started to wonder how there were any healthy people at all. Medical students have only a small piece of the knowledge that we need to be practicing physicians, and that knowledge can be dangerous.

I have a feeling that entering my internship training later this year will cure my medical student syndrome. I'll barely have enough time to shower, much less worry about the rare parasitic infections I'll surely get from eating hospital food.

MONTAGNE: Julie Rosenthal graduated last month from the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine. Congratulations!

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