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Life as a medical student: Palliative care

vicky hargest medical pre-medical studentMedical student Vicky Hargest looks at dying, and why we’re so reluctant to talk about it.

As the second year of medicine was coming to an end students were given the opportunity to take a break from daily lectures and take part in a six week research project. As with all Student Selected Components (SSCs) there was an element of choice with the research topics. There was a wide range including psychiatry, infections and immunity, primary care, genetics, infertility and many more.

Some of the projects were based in real research laboratories (without a bunsen burner in sight), while others were set in the local community alongside medics and patients. I chose a project with three other medical students which focused on palliative care – pain-relieving treatment for patients with life limiting illnesses.

Why won’t we talk about death?

Working alongside professional academics and clinicians made this feel like a real job where team meetings were held and decisions were made. After discussing the aims of the national project to which we were attached, we decided to hold focus groups with undergraduate students to explore their attitudes towards talking about death and dying.

We were given a free reign with the design of our project which involved constructing the research question, deciding which population to target and how to analyse our findings.

As this was something none of us had done before we were helped by our supervisors who were experts in the field of palliative care. They invited us to meet some terminally ill patients which provided a real insight into the subject that we were addressing.

Meeting the patients

Initially, I was a little apprehensive about going to the Palliative Care Centre as I had no idea what to expect from the patients or the staff. I was surprised by how calm and friendly the atmosphere was as I expected something quite sombre.

Some patients were sleeping and evidently in the final stages of their lives, whilst others were awake and seemed pleased to have the company. One patient talked openly about his family and how the illness has affected all their lives. He reflected on happier times and shed tears when talking about leaving loved ones behind. This was a very moving experience and one which has taught me the importance of compassion.

About Vicky

Vicky Hargest is a medical student at the University of Sheffield. Although she has an arts degree (health studies) she has taken the pre-med route (six year course) in order to learn foundation sciences.

She is the first in her family to enter higher education - proving that medicine is for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Having worked in medical education for the last six years she is now seeing things from the other side of the fence.

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