Ok, click bait admission: I didn’t actually run into a burning building to save my study notes. By the time I snuck back in, I knew it wasn’t a “real” fire… But I certainly was focused solely on continuing my studying, despite the possibility of my apartment complex being on fire… seriously. Here’s a typical story of how crazy medical school makes you!
It was early September during my 1st year of medical school. We had just completed the Labor Day weekend and I was in full study mode for the first of our 4 “Block Exams” that semester. A block exam is where on one day you have all the exams in all your classes. So we would do a half a day in anatomy and histology and the other half of the day completing the biochemistry and microbiology exams. Block exams are good in that they make studying more focused and predictable. Your study habits/energy build progressively over the 4 weeks preceding an exam, then you take the exam, then you get a short break from studying from all classes. Block exams are bad (and I always felt mostly bad) in that you have one high stakes day that determines your score in every damn class. No such thing as a “bad day” in a situation like that. Also, if you are a habitual crammer (albeit usually successfully) like me, you pretty much struggle. No way to cram for 4 med school course exams all in the same day; it’s simply impossible.
That’s a long way of saying that as this story is taking place, the pressure and intensity of this upcoming block exam is on highest alert. It’s now Sunday night, and the exam is on friday. I have anatomy lab at 8am on Monday, but being a night owl, I’m planning to do some serious studying after dark. I studied all day Saturday, but somehow got convinced to enjoy my Saturday night, so my Sunday studying is just picking up steam during the afternoon/evening hours.
It’s now about 9pm and I’m really hitting my studying peak. I’ve turned off the football games I’ve had in the background all day and am knocking out anatomy practice questions left and right. Nothing can stop me now! Then I hear the most horrible sound and am instantly filled with dread – the fire alarm!! I try to brush it off it momentarily but it’s too loud to be ignored. I live in what you’d generally consider a graduate level or young professional downtown apartment building, so “false alarms” aren’t as nearly as common as they were during my years in the dorms. I look out up and down the hallway, and see people reluctantly heading down the stairs. Stubborn yet, I go back inside and peek out on my 4th floor balcony. No smoke anywhere. “Forget this alarm” – I think to myself; time to get back to studying. But then much to my annoyance, I see a very large fire truck pull up followed by a couple other vehicles with lights and sirens on. In all the false alarms I’ve been through, this is the first with this kind of response. Ok, I actually need to head down the stairs.
Outside in the crisp cool air, I am greeted by many of the other occupants and several first responder types. I see several firefighters heading up the opposite stairwell. No one knows much, but one person says they talked to someone who definitely saw smoke inside the 2nd floor. Holy crap, it’s a real fire. My first thought: Holy crap I have a test this week. I cannot afford to lose the weeks of study notes! And being homeless would make studying even harder! I must make a run for my notes/book before they burn!
All rational thought aside, I go up to the firefighter blocking the main entrance and ask if I can go retrieve something very important. Even though I didn’t bother to tell him it was study notes, he looks at me like I’m dumb and politely tells me at this time they believe there is a real fire and I need to step back away from the building. No luck there. Doesn’t he know that a med school exam is more important than life or limb?
Back out with the others, I’ve gotten a little more information. One occupant has sheepishly admitted to having one too many drinks with a friend and leaving a pizza box in the oven to “warm it” only to set the whole dang thing on fire. He says there was a lot of smoke and some fire up around the oven, but that it was mostly already out when they ran out and the firefighters ran in.
A pizza box fire is not going to ruin my studying for the night. Even though they aren’t letting anyone in, with that information I know that it likely isn’t a dangerous fire (I still don’t see any smoke anywhere) and that it’ll probably be a bit before they let people back in while they clean everything up. I’m making a run for it – it being my study materials. So I sneak around the side door, as the remaining firefighters are now focusing on the main entrance. Quietly, I’m through the door and tip-toeing up the stairs. It’s the 4th floor, so I have a little bit to go, but eventually I make it undetected to my floor. In my apartment, I grab my notes, and a few practice question books – the essentials for studying.
As I head out and down the stairs, I’m busted by a firefighter going through the building. “What the heck are you still doing in here??” he barks at me. “Oh um, I just needed to grab something” I stutter. I’m clearly heading down now, but he goes ahead and escorts me all the way out. But who cares – I’m free and clear and study notes are saved! Outside I head over to the library which is only a couple blocks away for some more studying. I head home that night a little after midnight and all is clear at that time. All considered, I only lost about 45 min of study time. I found out later, everyone was outside for nearly 2 hours, so my “daring” action was a win!
Now, I don’t condone putting personal safety secondary to studying in med school, but I’m sure most of us have done it at some point. A classmate of mine was reviewing notes by candlelight in her bathtub during a tornado producing storm just a few weeks later. And how much of us routinely give up healthy sleeping, exercise, or eating patterns while adding way too much caffeine to our system during exam weeks. I’m sure all hands would be up on that one. I think during USMLE Step 1 studying I once went 6 days without leaving my apartment. Seems crazy now, but at the time it seemed like a good way to stay focused. The pressure of med school and the vast amounts of information to learn tend to make other aspects of life seem unimportant – even if they actually are!
Do you have a story about how you put studying above your own health/safety? Relatable experience? Feel free to add in the comments below.
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