Saturday, August 14, 2010

Zombies! (by blogger of the month, John Powers)

Newly opened Caroline House, a state-of-the-art
building with WIFI and meeting rooms,
where MSIH students can study, meet,
and work with their professors.
View of Soroka Medical Center from my window.
(thanks to Isaac Hatton for the photos!)
Zombies. That's the only word that comes to mind when I think of our arrival in Israel... we were zombies.

We hadn't started that way. After heavy questioning by El Al security and a somewhat confused check in process, those of us who'd bought a seat on the group flight convened in the Newark Airport Terminal B Chili's for some appetizers and drinks. It was the stateside-based MSIH staff's send off for us. There were some wide eyes, not much appetizer consumption, and a lot of nervous conversation.

I suppose I shouldn't say there was a lot of nervous conversation and imply that it was everyone. I can only speak for myself... I made a lot of nervous conversation. It wasn't until that morning that it started to become reality, this going-to-med-school-in-Israel thing. The preceding weeks had been full of goodbyes - many of them hard - and in a strange way it had almost become routine. I was saying goodbye so often that it felt like that was all I was ever going to do. But while sitting in that Chili's, nursing my Coke, it started to come to me in very real waves that the faces I was seeing now were the people I was going to become a doctor with, and that we were going to become doctors in a place I'd never been to.

The flight was uneventful and most of us had the same experience -- no one seemed able to sleep and we'd all watched "Date Night" several times. The lack of sleep, the overdose of "Date Night," and the wait for passport checks conspired to make us in to zombies. Thoughtlessly pushing our carts of luggage out of customs, we were greeted by Daniella, one of our Israeli liaisons. We were going to have to wait for some people arriving on different flights so we shuffled to the currency exchange window, and then to a lounge area where we were given some sandwiches and our cell phones were handed out. We ended up waiting for a few hours, even though we were only supposed to have waited a short while. I didn't know it at the time, but this waiting would become a theme. It wasn't anyone's fault, it's just that things in Israel work on a different clock and it isn't the one I've got strapped around my wrist.

Finally piling on the bus, I was excited to pull away from the airport and catch my first glimpses of Israel. Many in the group had been here before, but I was a first-timer. Surprisingly, the landscape wasn't much different than that of my hometown (Tulsa, OK). Patches of green and brown... softly rolling hills... it could have been home. ("And now it is home," I had to remind myself.) I wanted to keep taking in the scenery but the rocking of the bus made me doze.

I awoke as we pulled in to Be'er Sheva. Daniella was excitedly shouting directives and reminders to us in Hebrew and in English as the bus drove down Rager, one of the main drags in the city. The bus was going to drop us off at our summer sublets and then we were to meet later that night for tours of the neighborhoods and dinner. I was one of the first to be dropped off. After one of my new classmates helped me with my bags, I was finally at the end of my travels.

I was disheartened. It had been a long day. From the early morning of July 21 to the afternoon of July 22, I'd been up. I was dirty, it was incredibly hot, and everything I'd seen of the city on the way in was hardly exciting. Of course, the excitement of a happening city isn't why one chooses to do a program like MSIH, but I hadn't expected a blazingly bright, dusty, and somewhat shabby looking city. I can hardly recall what I did expect. It only stands to reason that a city in the desert would be incredibly bright, amazingly hot, and somewhat worse for wear thanks to the harsh environment. I was feeling guilty about my initial reaction to the city when another MSIH first year, Justin, knocked on my door. He was subletting right above me. We made small talk until he finally asked what my first impression was. I had to admit that it wasn't good, but I felt less guilty when he admitted he felt the same way.

Later that night, the entire MSIH class of 2014 met and took tours of our new neighborhoods. Then we met for falafel. It was, we were told, the best falafel in the city. (I have since been to several "best falafel in the city" falafel restaurants and even one "third best falafel restaurant in the entire country" falafel restaurant.) When we disbanded for the night I fell on my bed, greedy for rest and slept for the first time in what felt like days.

The next few days brought a whole new perspective. While I was still having trouble with the heat, a good night's rest, a shower, and some air conditioning in my apartment gave me a new mind. We toured the city, went grocery shopping, and (for those of us that signed up) had Shabbat in twos and threes with a local family. As Justin put it later, things seemed "doable" finally. In just those few days I came to like my sublet, and the neighborhood I found myself in. The heat and sun are relentless, but as soon as dusk comes, the temperature starts to drop, cool breeze come and the city becomes so pleasant.

On our first official day of school, we met in one of our classrooms in Soroka Medical Center and listened to a variety of welcoming remarks and overviews of the school and curriculum. The first to address us was Dr. Carmi Margolis, the emeritus director of MSIH. Two things stood out to me in his talk. The first was the first thing he said, "It's the first day of medical school... Well, it only gets worse." He got a chuckle from us. The other was something he said about the founding principles of Ben Gurion University's medical school, which are principles that run through MSIH as well. One of the things that was important, he said, was that the school educate physicians that were not only capable doctors but also "mensches." A mensch, he explained, was a good person - a human being. I looked it up online and Webster's gave this definition: "a person of integrity and honor." I like that.

Dr. Margolis and the rest of the speakers for that day, even though they were simply there to give us information, were all very encouraging and seemed genuinely excited that we were there. And their excitement was contagious. Strangely, one of the things I found easiest to forget during my premed education and the extended application process for various medical schools was the goal itself. That is, somewhere in the middle of all the studying and the paperwork was the reality that I was doing it all to become a doctor. Sitting and listening to the various overviews of our curriculum and fourth year IHM clerkships refocused me on the horizon. It also reminded me of the work involved in achieving my goals. But Dr. Moser, the person in charge of the IHM track, had spoke to that in his comments. "Graduation. I know it's far away but it takes some real effort NOT to get there." My overall impression of the teachers and administrators we met that day was that this is a school that fosters an environment of support and challenging encouragement... an environment that will try to make us into physicians and mensches.  - John Powers, MSIH first year student, August, 2010