By: Michael Shavolian  | 

Laughter is the Best Pre-Medicine

In front of me lies a textbook so thick that it has to be the one I’m most looking forward to throwing in the fireplace at the end of the semester… or at least that’s what I find myself thinking when the coffee fails to kick in and I still have two chapters left to review. I roll my chair forward and it comes to a halt as its armrests hit the wooden table. I uncap my highlighter and begin to read.

The fifth floor of the library provides some calming white noise against which my mind can I lift my head and notice Alex sitting nearby. It was time for a break anyway. But instead of a break I fleetingly wonder if Alex is ahead of me in the textbook and what I am essentially doing at that moment is fishing for a comparison. I have become all too familiar with this treacherous concept of a curve- the impulse to compare your progress (or lack thereof) to that of another. I chuckle at its absurdity.

But despite this self-awareness, I cannot help but overhear Alex chattering. “2-methylcyclohexane.” “How do you draw it?” he beckons a classmate. Pre-med FOMO overcomes me. Are they reviewing something that I should be reviewing? Alex grabs his over-sized personal white board from his tall blue backpack. I chuckle aloud at the super-sized board and at the fact that I sit here watching him.

The next day, after class is dismissed, and after almost everyone has left the room, the student next to me remains steadfast in his seat. He raises his hands and shakes them in unison. “Veha-ikar lo lefached klal”, he whispers fervently. He clenches his eyes closed. And the main thing is to never be afraid. I hear him repeat those same words as I pass by him in the library that evening. The main thing is to never be afraid. I laugh because of how far pre-med seems to have taken us.

The test comes and goes and the class’s next meeting couldn't arrive any quicker. At its end the exams are returned and I observe the varied reactions as I wait for my moment of fate. One student’s head clamps down as he cautiously peeks at his grade. Another quickly slides his exam into his knapsack without affording it a glance and yet another smiles cautiously as he walks slowly out of the classroom. Alex jumps and shouts with joy, almost toppling another student on his way out.

The next class is loud…so loud that I can hear myself wondering for a moment if it’s because everyone performed so phenomenally on the exam. The comical absurdity of even entertaining this thought becomes clear to me. The professor calls for attention and begins his lecture. In the midst of the lesson students at the other end of the classroom lean into the aisles to form impromptu study groups. They ask each other questions when they find the professor’s explanations dissatisfying, which judging by their frequent murmurs isn’t infrequent. Their whispers are maddening to the student next to me. He turns to me:

“They love Orgo”.

“So do I”, I reply.

“Yeah. But you’re not annoying about it”.

I chuckle. “Thank you…I think”.

So I guess I have struck the balance…studious enough to excel in class but not overly obsessive so that I would be described as a single-minded pre-med machine (though, that’s not entirely a bad thing). It’s kind of like when your secular friends tell you that you're the coolest observant Jew they know or when your Ashkenazi friends tell you that your Yiddish pronunciation is on fleek (this hasn’t happened to me yet)…or at least that’s how I prefer to perceive myself.

I look around at my peers in Organic Chemistry and ponder the ways in which we have individually learned to cope with this pre-med hoopla. Some admittedly seem so naturally equipped. It is as if they were born to break their bones while studying in an ultimate effort to fix others’ as orthopedic surgeons. These are the pre-meds that thrive off of pre-test anxiety (just kidding, that’s impossible) and who take every single MIT OpenCourseWare test from the past ten years in order to prepare for an upcoming Organic Chemistry exam (OK, fine, I did that too).

There is, of course, a spectrum of ways in which pre-meds deal with the pressure of looming laboratory report deadlines and dense biology chapters . I have learned to roll with the punches and to view my medical aspirations as part of a journey. Because in any good story or play, there are elements of tragedy and comedy…but all too often, I think we forget to laugh on cue when the high-hat signals a joke or when the comic takes the stage. We forget to laugh, not in a deriding or lightheaded kind of way but in a thoughtful fashion, in recognition of our flaws and weaknesses and of our, sometimes, ultimate powerlessness…in a way that Jean Dominique Bauby in his chilling memoir accurately depicts. “There comes a time when the heaping up of calamities brings on uncontrollable nervous laughter - when, after a final blow from fate, we decide to treat it all as a joke.”

Now, pre-med is far from a calamity (or a joke for that matter) but Bauby reminds me that laughter can be a pretty good medicine for its dismays. So I laugh because laughing is a decidedly better alternative to smoking to take the edge of stress, because competition does not motivate me as it might others, because I am, unfortunately, too lazy to exercise as regularly as I should and because this is the 7th time I have registered for classes and not once has my class schedule from May been anywhere near close to my schedule in November. I laugh because the jitters that accompany my thirty fifth college exam don’t surprise me in the least and because the post-test hoc is utterly pointless. I laugh because I know I may not be the smartest in the room and, to be honest, I definitely do not top the list of students with most weekly library hours. But I have always put in one hundred percent. And when you put in one hundred percent and get back less than that, what more can you do but laugh, shrug it off, and try harder next time?