Last Lectures

One of our professors at University Medical School died recently. One of his sons is a classmate in the Medical School and the other is an undergraduate at University College. His wife has an extremely serious, often fatal, disease. He recently taught our ophthalmology course, which I did not attend. Some genius responsible for scheduling the secondar year courses decided to put six ophthalmology lectures in between our neurology course and it’s final exam. Like 99% of our class, I chose to study for Neurology and Psychiatry instead of going to ophthalmology lectures that were being recorded, transcribed and not tested for another six weeks. As a result, I got my best grades of the year on those two exams. One of the four students who attended his lectures was his son, who was responsible for our class’ video recording and note-taking service. He was there, although he did not know it at the time, to record his father’s last lectures.

Unfortunately, like approximately 10% of our class, I missed the deadline for the on-line Ophthalmology exam. The professor never told us when the exam would close, and when I tried to take it over winter break, it had already closed. In his lectures, he said that we only had to take it before the end of second year, so I was a bit surprised to find that I had essentially “failed” the exam. I emailed him a few times about the exam, but never received a reply. I went to the ophthalmology department several times and left messages with his secretary, and she said he would call me back. He didn’t. The last time I went to go look for him in the ophthalmology office was a Friday, and again, he wasn’t in the office. That night, after changing his wife’s IV medication, he had chest pain and went to go lie down. I never had the chance to meet with him.

I only found out about the death of our professor on the following Tuesday. We immediately got in touch with his son, and went to their house every night for the remaining shiva, helping ensure that there was a minyan (group of ten adult jews) every night so that the prayer service could be conducted as it was required. My girlfriend cooked and baked (and I helped with some of the basic food preparation, but I’m not terribly useful in the kitchen). Some nights, all we had to do was show up and we were overwhelmed by the dozens of people at the household. Other nights, we had to make phone calls and scramble to even find a tenth person.

The memorial service was Monday, and the organizers were surprised at the turnout. Students and faculty filled one of the smaller lecture halls, so we had to move to the largest lecture hall (capacity of about 250), and people were still overflowing into the aisles. The contrast between his memorial service and his last lectures could not have been more striking.

And we move on. His son returned to classes that Monday, and will make up the cardiology exam that he missed (no, I am not making that up). We’re studying Renal pathophysiology now and with the pace of the second year of medical school being what it is, trying to remember what happened two weeks ago is becoming increasingly difficult.

As a human being, I know that what I should learn from this experience is that life is unpredictably and brutally short, time is luck, and I need to seize the opportunities around me. Nothing is more difficult for me to do. My world right now consists of medical school classes, wasting time on the internet, studying for Step 1 of our boards, my girlfriend, my dogs, and working out. I couldn’t even find it in me to go to an interesting lecture series because I was too consumed with memorizing (not even learning!) the information I needed to regurgitate the following week. What day should I be seizing? Should I be doing more research? (I already have 6 published papers in a top medical specialty journal) Should I volunteer more at our free clinic? Should I play with kids? Should I solve global warming?

We make a lot of sacrifices in medical school, both shallow and profound. I hope and pray that I’m leaving the right things by the wayside.

Two nights ago I took the make-up Ophthalmology exam and got a 94/100. Thank you for teaching me six words I’ll never forget: “Vision, Pupils, Look at the eye.”

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