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Meet Joyce Wamala

Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery Student at Makerere University

Bachelor of Medicine is one of the favorite programs that many science students want to pursue at University. Pupils when asked what they want to become when they grow up, it is very common to hear them shout out "Doctor!!!". In Uganda the patient to doctor ratio is 1:25,725 (World Health Organization) thus the need for more doctors is a dare one. However many students don't have a full understanding of what it takes to become a doctor.

In order to give you some insights into what it takes to become a doctor, we caught up with Joyce Wamala, A 4th Year Bachelor of Medicine Student at Makerere University. This is what we asked 

Tell us about yourself, your journey thus far and what your vision in life is?

I grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe. I went to Gateway Primary School and then proceeded to attend Arundel High School. I then applied early decision to Amherst College in Massachusetts and was given an admissions offer and a partial scholarship to pursue pre-medicine with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology.

After almost 2 years there, I came home and applied to Makerere for medicine. When you talk about my vision for my life, I assume you mean the bigger picture of how I want to live out my life and be remembered. My faith is central to my world view so my vision in life is to serve God, to serve my family and to serve people.

In a nutshell, what is Bachelor of Medicine like as a course?

Medicine (and your medical career) doesn't begin after graduation. Au contraire, it starts the very day you receive the admissions letter. This means that it takes committing to life- long learning in its truest sense, learning to study ahead even before you start semesters, coping with short to no breaks until the Christmas holiday and so much more.

What are the common misconceptions about the Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery 

One misconception that I walked into the course with was the fact that things would be easy since I had excelled in school prior to being admitted. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Thriving in medical school doesn't depend on some inherent source of intelligence, it's actually more about persistence, strategy and hard work. Many times you will find yourself failing to understand concepts the first time they are taught or literally failing entire course units (if you're not careful.) It doesn't make you any less worthy of your place in medicine.

It just means you're still human and need to work harder. You will also find that many people come in with an extremely competitive mindset that was ingrained in them from their previous high school experiences. In medical school, you are learning with the best of the best from all the institutions in the admissions pool. Competing with your peers just yields stress and eventual burnout.

We are encouraged to share ideas, notes, textbooks, join discussion groups and walk the journey together to avoid this. There are many other misconceptions that exist about medicine but I'll attempt to tackle only one more. It seems many people think medical school students don't have a life outside academics.

The truth is that at first, it does seem hard to do anything that doesn't include trying to cope with your classes. However, many medical students also have to find time to balance not only volunteer and extra-curricular activities but also their obligations to their families and loved ones. In the end, it's all about balancing acts and time management.

Why did you choose this course?

I've always had a curious mind. In high school, my Chemistry Teacher picked up on the fact that I asked a lot of questions and actually found it annoying. Low and behold, I was her best chemistry student at the end of the day. I realized that I wasn't satisfied with my limited understanding of how the human body functions. Before I even knew what these terms meant, I had a budding curiosity for human physiology and disease pathophysiology. That coupled with the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed being on the first aid team in high school informed my decision to do medicine.

How is this course relevant to your future plans?

Medicine is such a broad field and at first, I didn't know which direction I was going with it. Eventually, my personal experiences together with my observations of my community both at school and at home, made me realize that I want to make a difference in the conversation around mental health in Uganda.

I would like to serve my community and the country at large after getting my masters in Psychiatry. My aim is to reduce the stigma that mental health patients and their families face and also innovate in the area of preventative measures in institutions of higher education against extremes in mental illness.

Describe your ordinary day at campus?

My typical day starts at 7:30 AM when I arrive on campus. Shortly afterwards I go to my locker in the library to deposit my bag, pick up my clinical coat and instruments and make sure I'm presentable for the ward. I'm currently rotating in medical specials under the Oncology Department. I walk up to the Cancer Institute and arrive by 8:20 AM latest. We are expected to clerk patients for presentation in the ward round and to be active in the round itself.

The round lasts until 12noon. There is a 2-hour lunch break, which is enough time to get something to eat and then either relax or go to the library to do some reading before the afternoon lecture. We are currently having lectures in Tuberculosis and Ethics and Professionalism. They are held until around 4 PM in the afternoon. The day officially ends at around 5 PM.

How do you cope up with the pressure to excel at University? 

My faith is central to my coping mechanism. I am involved in a couple of church-related activities outside attending the Sunday morning service. I also find that it really helps to have people to talk to diffuse the stress rather than keeping it bottled inside.

Sometimes I talk to a family member that I can confide in or else a fellow medical student who understands the pressure I feel. Sometimes, taking strategic breaks over the weekend and doing something outside medical school is a great way to unwind and balance.

I also find that it is very useful to have mentors both in and outside the medical field, they inform some of my bigger decisions and give me perspective when I feel like it's all becoming too much. Lastly, a hidden gem that I discovered in second year was the art of 'coming clean' about things when it's all too much. Opening up to one of your lecturers in a course you are struggling with is a great way of gaining insight into coping mechanisms.

What subjects did you choose in high school and how have they been relevant in your course?

In my last year of high school, I studied Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology and Thinking Skills. Funny enough, I think the first three only really gave me a head start in the first year. Biology gave me a foundation for physiology, anatomy, and biochemistry.

Chemistry helped with first-year biochemistry. Mathematics also helped with biochemistry. Medical school and medicine, in general, is very different from the basic sciences. There is a new vocabulary and a new way of thinking that you have to embrace. Thinking skills gave me a more open mind and that helped me to be more adaptable.

How are you using the knowledge you have acquired from University?

I use the knowledge I have acquired to advise people who want to venture into medicine. I have also been part of a Microbiology project that won a prize in Geneva, Switzerland. I was also in Northern Uganda in June for a community diagnosis research attachment.

More recently, I apply my knowledge whenever there is a medical problem around me whether at school or at home. Whenever we take a family member to the hospital, I become a reference point and that gives me a chance to learn even more. I will soon be a research assistant in an upcoming study and I am looking forward to learning more through that avenue.

What plans do you have after campus?

As mentioned earlier, I would like to pursue my Masters in Psychiatry ( my dream is to do so in Canada) and then come back to practice here in Uganda. Before that, I will have to complete a year-long internship here.

Other than attending lectures, what else do you do with your time while at University?

I am a member of SPEC( the Students' Professionalism and Ethics Club). We are currently organizing the peer mentorship program and I am the team leader for that project. I am also a class representative in my rotation. I am a campus cell leader for a Watoto Church Cell group.

What trends are you seeing in your field of study that aspiring students should be mindful of?

It's becoming more competitive because there are many more medical schools these days and many more students are admitted. Students should be ready to commit fully to the course before applying and should have an inkling that it is their passion to pursue medicine. Since there is more competition, this means that students should be ready to be more dynamic in their approach to medical school and taken on more extracurriculars and roles outside the classroom. This will make them more marketable after they graduate. Mentorship is also something that many people are taking on and should be embraced by aspiring students.

What advice would you give someone who dreams of enrolling for your course someday?

Malcolm X said, "the future belongs to those who prepare for it today" so start today! Start preparing yourself mentally today, read and research more about what it takes to do medicine. Seek out mentors who can guide you and work hard at whatever you are currently doing.

Any concluding remarks?

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my experience with you. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.

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