Studying with the enemyBMJ 2003; 327 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/sbmj.0309347a (Published 01 September 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:0309347a
- Enrique Soto Pérez de Celis, fourth year medical student1
Over the past 10 months, my girlfriend has had rectal cancer, diabetes, amebiasis, mesenteric ischemia, and even severe acute respiratory syndrome. No, she does not have familial polyps, she is not obese, she is not a senior citizen, and she has never been to Beijing. She is just a medical student.
It all started a year ago when she began her clinical courses. After taking microbiology, she had an acute case of shigellosis. A day after passing endocrinology, she fell ill with a pheochromocytoma. And three months ago, having finished gastroenterology, her rectum had a malignant neoplasm, a parasitic infection, and haemorrhoids.
To me, this seemed like regular hypochondria. However, as the days (and the courses) flew by, I became worried about her mental health. She spent hours reading, trying to figure out what terrible microbe was behind her headache. I had to check her blood pressure, her tonsils, her tympanum, and her heartbeat every time she had diarrhoea. One day, when a rash appeared on her forearm, she dramatically informed me that it was petechiae and prepared herself for a swift death at the hands of meningitis.
Every time she studied for a test, she self diagnosed an illness related to that particular subject. The more she learnt, the more she could identify the symptoms in herself. Soon enough she started diagnosing terrible and extremely rare diseases in those around her. Her poor sister, who had a cough, was labeled “measles.” A friend with a fever was diagnosed as having severe acute respiratory syndrome after my girlfriend found out that our friend had made out with a Canadian. My girlfriend even diagnosed me as having prostate hypertrophy when I took several trips to the bathroom after drinking a litre of soda at the movies.
I was scared. I knew that her hypochondria would soon lead to a nervous breakdown and that the physical aspect of her mental illness was only getting worse. I did not know where to turn for advice, so I searched the internet. In the Student BMJ I found an article about “medical studentitis” and “medical student's disease.”1 I was relieved when I read that my girlfriend did not fulfil the criteria of the 10th edition of the international classification of disease for official hypochondria. The article also stated that as much as 80% of all future doctors can develop this “disease” during their medical education. Another hit was from the Michigan Daily. Teachers at the University of Utah were concerned by an increasing rate of hypochondria among clinical students; they referred to it as “sophomoritis” or “second year syndrome.”2
I was facing a disease that had at least four different names. I decided that I had to find out for myself. I drove to campus and started asking all my friends about their illnesses. I discovered a public health horror story: my university was home to some of the most vicious, lethal, and rare diseases in the world. My friends had every disease known to humanity including leprosy, tuberculosis, mesothelioma, and Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia. I also made the greatest public health discovery of the millennium-the last case of smallpox did not happen in Somalia 25 years ago, it happened right here in my hometown in 1999. I was perplexed and terrified, and that night I slept badly. When the nightmares woke me up, the thought of “medical studentitis” relaxed me and I could sleep again. “Those fools,” I said to myself, “They have sophomormedicalsecondyearitis and they don't know anything about it.”
The next morning I woke up and headed to the bathroom. As I looked in the mirror, the toothbrush fell from my hand and I screamed. In the middle of my forehead stood a fearful visitor-the pustule. It was not a lie, smallpox was back, and this time it was out to get me. Maybe it was released by terrorists, maybe it escaped from a lab, or maybe it was a mutant virus, but none of that mattered; I was going to die. I fainted.
I was lying on the bathroom floor, my cat was licking my cheek, and I had a headache. I pulled myself up and stood in front of the mirror again. The hated pustule, the one that represented fear itself and had made me faint, was broken and covered in blood. The fall had blown the pimple. I had medical studentitis.
The point of this story is to let you know that each and every one of us has some kind of “medical studentitis.” There are no risk factors, except studying medicine, and, in my opinion, the only cure is coping with the disease. Understanding our own knowledge and keeping a cool head towards our own medical problems is the only way to diminish the anguish caused by having diphtheria every winter. Put down that enzyme linked immunosorbent assay; you just have a cold. By the way, I got Chagas' disease last week, and my girlfriend still thinks she has mesenteric ischaemia (she has had it for a month now, isn't that something?).
Originally published as: Student BMJ 2003;11:347