Chronicles of my passing (the Boards)
TWO DAYS before the Boards I trained myself to wake up at 4 am—not exactly a gargantuan task, since I'm pretty much a morning person. The exams would start at 8 am, but the call-time was set at 6:30, at the Manuel L. Quezon University in Quiapo—a dangerous place where snatchers abound, or so a friend told me. This friend related to me a story about someone she knew, a medical graduate ready to take the exam of her life, only to have her exam permit snatched away. That someone was disqualified from taking the test.
Before August 23 were three months of intense studying—not the most stressful period of my life, because reading and taking down notes and outlining are pleasurable for me, perhaps among the very few moments when I'm actually mum. (And, thankfully, preparing for the Medical Boards was not as discouraging as studying for the Bar Exam, where only one in five people passes). Finally I was making sense of concepts that were previously vague to me, things I always got wrong in tests, or sets of facts that didn't appeal to my academic interests but needed memorization anyway—like cancer staging. I remember, with regret, that in med school I had sailed my way through rounds by 15 minutes of cramming, or with the help of Medscape, the UP-PGH intern's most useful textbook app. What could I have done without it? There was hardly any time for rigorous personal study time then. So I welcomed the Boards as an "exclusive" opportunity to go back to my books, something my mother correctly said I should have done since Day One of med school. (She was reprimanding me for dwelling more time on my literary readings; mothers do know best.)
There is a sense in which I also regret studying the transes—a shorthand for "transcriptions", which were glorified, transcribed, and edited notes of my classmates—when I should have tackled real textbooks head-on. The latter would have cost me more time and sleepless nights but would've made lasting mental investments whose profits were to be reaped in the clinics or in exams. It took me five years to realize that my basic unit of thought are not bulleted phrases but well-written paragraphs.
My preparation mostly involved rigorous note-taking; I learn best when I write things down. I would start early, head off to a restaurant or stay in my room or bother someone in the kitchen—there were no fixed agenda, except the topics to cover for the day, which themselves were as flexible as cell membranes. I resolved to start the day by doing my morning devotions—Ezekiel and Daniel were the Old Testament books I read—coupled with journaling, to help me make sense of things. This spiritual exercise also put my efforts into proper focus: that I should study to honor God. I resolved not to rant, complain, or slack off. As an imperfect man I violated so many of my resolutions, but they were there to be aspired for, to show me how I am in dire need of God's help.
I enrolled myself in UP's board review series which lasted a month. I hardly attended the lectures, though some of them were extremely helpful. Why didn't I enrol in a much more intensive review program, as most of my classmates have done? I guess I didn't want to spend days on end listening to lectures I'll probably forget. I learn best when I read things on my own. I also have the tendency to bother my seatmates, engage them in conversations about life and the future, while the rest of the class listens to, say, a mind-blowing discussion on the pharmacokinetics of phenytoin. The short of it is: I also didn't have lots of money.
During that period I reconnected with old friends outside of Medicine, and I got to even help a friend make a memorable wedding proprosal in Tagaytay. It was a "yes," thankfully. I also met with very few people, notably Carlo de Guzman, who would go to as far as Quezon City to study with me. His memory was sharp, and he taught me all about Gaucher Disease and Hymenolepsis nana.
Towards the last two weeks before the Boards, I went back to the Med Library in UP Manila. My tolerance for coffee shops waned, and I needed a change of venue. Needless to say, the sight of medical graduates smoking outside my Starbucks window distressed me; I was preoccupied with the sorry state of their lungs. The playlist, comprised mostly of hipster music (what is hipster, anyway?), was also atrocious most of the time.
At the Library I saw some of my classmates, notably Lee-Ann Caro, who has practically the same study habits as me. We spent a day answering sample questions together, and she taught me—as she always does—valuable mnemonics, especially on the branchial arches, which I shall cherish until my dying day. Don't ask me what it is—it sounds rather vulgar in the vernacular. Glaiza de Guzman was there, too; she quizzed me on random terms, an exercise that imprinted hard-to-remember concepts in my memory. Hansel Duro, Patch Abarquez, Mervyn Leones, Jonas Bico, Cons Yu-Chua, Ralph Zuñiga, Grace Villafuerte, Angeli Tolibas, Julie Reyes, Ricky Cariño, and many more were also present during various times of the day. The most permanent fixture was Al Sy, who stayed at the Lounge beside the restrooms. His cries of panic reminded me of the song, "We're All In This Together," if there's a song with that title. I loved asking him random, remote terms, which made him panic even more—but he knew the answer to most of them, anyway, which sort of turned the tables against me. I was the one palpitating, ultimately.
About two days before the exam, my friends discussed what the worst thing that could happen to a board exam taker was. "Mawala ang test permit" and "Hindi magising" were standard, realistic answers—and therefore boring. "Magka-appendicitis," and "Mabulag ng Onchocerca volvulus" were answers that made us all howl. But the winner was Cons's reply: "Magka-ectopic pregnancy." That cheap immitation of a talkshow brought tears to our eyes, the way a desperate man can laugh at anything remotely funny to take his mind off the impending…doom.
I don't think the Physician Licensure Exam is the biggest exam of my life. I have a feeling there will be more challenging ones. I'm just relieved it's finally over, I passed, and I don't have to take it again.