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Craziness is normal for SMH med students
STUDENTS — From left, Thatcher Newkirk, Gwen Downs and Jennifer Zuar, along with Rebecca Wood (not pictured), are medical students from Tufts University who are about halfway finished their nine-month stay at SMH as part of Maine Track – a program specifically designed for medical students interested in practicing in rural areas of Maine.
NORWAY — If working at a busy rural hospital will teach you one thing, it's that you don't get much time to slow down.
So far, that seems to be the biggest lesson four medical students have learned during their four-and-a-half months at Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway.
"One of the interesting things is that a lot of it never really settles down – which, I think, is part of the point," says med student Thatcher Newkirk.
The students are enrolled in Maine Track, a Tufts University program that awards financial aid for students interested in practicing medicine in rural Maine.
The long-term goal of the program is to address the chronic lack of medical professionals in Maine's rural communities.
Part of the reason the students have been so busy is due to their schedule. Unlike traditional "block'' scheduling, in the SMH program students get hands-on experience in core study areas almost every day, instead of one at a time.
As Newkirk explains, the students need to become "comfortable with chaos." Unlike his high school and college experiences, a dependable schedule isn't in the cards at SMH – he feels like anything could happen during his day.
"What I've noticed with this experience is there is no settle-in," he explains. "The key instead is to learn how to be comfortable with the fact that there's no settling in."
Despite the frenzied pace of the program, Newkirk feels the real-life experience he's getting makes him more prepared for a career in medicine.
The other students agree – the program is intense, but rewarding.
"I think we've all learned to adapt a little better," says Jennifer Zuar. "I think the craziness has become kind of the new normal, and I think we've all gotten really good at juggling a lot of patients and a lot of preceptors." A preceptor is a teacher or tutor, in this case doctors who give students practical experience.
Aside from the real-life pace of the SMH program, it also has other unique benefits. Students have the opportunity to shadow their preceptors and learn hands-on skills while the doctors go about their normal daily business.
Gwen Downs says the preceptors she's been working with have provided her with invaluable experience she might not have received elsewhere – being able to work with doctors in a real-time hospital environment gives her an excellent window into how the hospital operates.
Another part of the program the students appreciate is their care of individual "panel" patients as they go through different stages of care.
Working with a patient has been immensely rewarding, says Downs. It gives the students a chance to really connect with their patients and become intimately familiar with their care.
It also gives the students an intimate understanding of a patient's history, which can be an asset for the hospital.
"I think we're at the point now where we can actually be of service," says Zuar.
"If a [panel] patient comes into the ER and I'm paged, I can actually help the doctor know what the past medical history is ... and actually be a help. That's incredibly gratifying."
The students agree the program has convinced them rural medicine is the right fit for them. Even though he might not stay in Maine, Newkirk is certainly sticking to New England.
"It's a culture I understand, it's a climate I understand, it's a place I understand," he explains.
Zuar agrees – the program has reinforced her appreciation for rural medicine.
"If anything, I like it better," she says.