The diary of a medical student by Dr. Bintu Mansaray

It’s November 6, 2005. I am so excited, I couldn’t sleep the night before. Today is my first day as a medical student. The first step on the long journey to become a doctor; the dream I have had since high school.
I started COMAHS (College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences) with high hopes, excitement and yes a little fear. I had heard so many stories. Stories about failure and students being expelled. Stories that seemed far-fetched because having been one of the best students during my time at the Annie Walsh Memorial School, having been in the top streams throughout and having collected prizes at every prize-giving, I was at a loss as to how hard it could really be. Failure does not happen in my world. It’s not a word in my vocabulary. Suddenly, I am at COMAHS and it is all you think about..
When I started pre-med 1, there were more than 50 students in the group.
The first exams made me realize that this is a different ball game altogether. I then realized that the stories about COMAHS were not only true, but also that COMAHS was so much worse. Pre-med was so stressful. It’s the year that determines whether you’re going to do medicine, pharmacy or nursing. An average of 60% in pre-med, qualifies you to continue as a medical student and less than 60% means you settle for studying pharmacy. We all came to be doctors and nothing less.
The first and second years were at Kossoh Town. The campus had no electricity. Our only source of electricity was from a generator for a few hours some nights. We had to depend on candles and battery lights to study at night. We asked our parents to bring us water in gallons for cooking, washing and other necessities.
I cannot write about my first and second year without writing about one Physiology Professor. His lectures started at 9am, and lasted until 5 p.m with only a 5 or 10 minute break in between. This professor was responsible for my love-hate relationship with Physiology. As is to be expected, weI would all be so tired and exhausted in the class. I would routinely just slip out of class to get some rest in my room for an hour or two and then slip quietly back into class ready for the last lap.
I put in 18 hours studying time a day. No one knows just how fast a day can run like a medical student; with exams and results coming out of our ears. It really was a case of survival of the fittest, and some of my classmates were left behind.
Then we went on to 3rd year, which is known to be the hardest year at COMAHS. We met lots of repeaters and this caused our class number to swell to over 70 students. I have never studied so hard in my life. Most students that repeat the year at COMAHS repeat at 3rd year.
A few months before the exams, rumours started flying around that the class was too large and only half of us would pass to clinical. We went into a frenzy, left our comfortable homes to come sleep at Connaught on mattresses on the cold floor. All this in a bid to increase our chances of making the cut into clinical. Some nights were so cold we wore jackets, hats and socks. I look back at 3rd year and I shake my head in amazement. How did we do it? God bless Sierra Leone.
The day our 3rd year results were supposed to be published, I left my house and went to the beach, my favorite place to think. I sat on the sand with the waves bathing my feet, my head in my hands and my phone beside me trying to think what I would do if I didn’t pass. How would I tell my parents, friends and the rest of my family? Then I got a text from a friend saying “Congratulations, you’re now in clinical”. I screamed and started dancing and laughing whilst passers by looked as if I was mad. Yes, I was mad with joy.
I thought Basic Sciences was hard, but it was nothing to our chemical years. It was hard, tough and so subjective. You take an exam and walk away without any idea about whether you had passed or failed. It was like a lucky dip. It was either you study the whole time only to go into the exams to be presented with a case you had never seen before or you don’t study much at all and are faced with the only case you know. That is more or less how my 4th year exams went.
Surgery was so bad, never saw a gastric cancer patient in the whole year and was faced with one in my exams. I didn’t know where to start, what questions to ask and of course I failed that case woefully. Needless to say I had a reference in surgery. I resat it, passed it and went on to the 5th year.
For medicine, I was tested on the system I knew really well. The patient could understand neither Krio nor English. She could only speak Kono which of course is a language I am totally clueless about. Her daughter who was supposed to interpret was nowhere to be found. I just examined and stood there thinking I had failed. Luckily, the patient had a pleural effusion displaying the classic symptoms thus one could hardly go wrong with it. I think all medical students love the Respiratory System, so although I had no history, I aced that exam.
5th year was the best of my college years. I had never attended classes like I did that year. We took classes at Ola During and PCMH. Pediatrics postings were my favourite. Our lecturer, Professor Abiodun was the best lecturer I had throughout my whole medical school experience. Going into medical school I wanted to be a Cardiologist, however I had a rude awakening to the reality and decided to leave cardiology in the capable hands of Doctor Russell. I went through my 2nd, 3rd and 4th years with no idea of what I wanted to specialise in, until I got to 5th year and then I fell in love with Pediatrics. I just knew I wanted to look after children. Professor Abiodun was such a great, selfless and committed lecturer. She made me fall in love with her subject. I took my first exams and unlike the uncertainty experienced in previous years, I knew I would pass. I didn’t study as much as I had done in previous years but I had learnt enough during all my postings and night duties to be able to apply myself in the exams. I passed and moved on to the last lap of my journey; final year.
We had the best doctors, although most were really busy with their professional duties. Dr. Willoughby was there to teach at all times. He printed notes for us, was ready to step in for any lecture we wanted. Dr. Russell although a very busy doctor taught me more in the two weeks I was posted to him than all my other medicine postings. Professor Lisk made Neuro examination so easy and effortless and I am sure most of my colleagues feel the same as I do.
The majority of the work was done by the students though. We didn’t have enough lectures, no internet facility for students and going to and from campus everyday as we didn’t reside on campus made studying medicine harder and more expensive than it needed to be. It would be a gross understatement to say that we needed doctors that were dedicated solely to teaching. We really needed that. We had excellent doctors but between their private clinics and responsibilities to Connaught they had little time to dedicate to us students. So many things were left untaught and we had to learn ourselves. Opening Kumar and Clarks and spending days trying to make sense of a topic you’ve got to learn before the exams was so hard. Final year exams were the toughest exams I have ever taken in my life. I had no idea whether or not I would pass..
That final year was crazy. Between rural postings (I was sent to Makeni for five weeks, did three weeks at the Government Hospital and the last two weeks at the periphery. I had to take public motorcycle to and from the village I was posted at, a total of 12 miles every day. We were only reimbursed after the rural postings when we came back to Freetown and it did not even cover half of what we spent) and the craziness of writing dissertations. I wonder how we got any studying done. Three weeks to my finals, I thought I would go insane when I saw the list of all the topics I was supposed to cover.
My friends and I would study from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. stopping only for comfort breaks, food and prayers.The exams were a blur and I had no idea whether I would pass even one subject.
The day of the meeting dawned with rain. I sat quietly at home, resigned for bad news. Only a COMAHS student knows what the day of board of examiners meeting feels like. You can’t eat, sleep or watch TV. Nothing can distract you from the fact that your fate is being determined. No one understands like a COMAHS student.
I got the call that I succeeded. I was finally a doctor. Dr. Bintu Mansaray. I just said thanks and switched off my phone. I couldn’t scream or shout rejoice, I was just numb and could hardly relieved believe 8 years had just whizzed by.
I had completed COMAHS but where was the happiness? I couldn’t hear the trumpets blasting. I just sat there thinking that 39 of us took the exams and only 17 of us passed with no references. I thought back to the original students I started with. 50 of us started on that day in November 2005 and only 12 of us made it to the end together. Some left COMAHS along the way, we picked some others up on the way. It still saddens me when I think of that very first day. We were all so full of dreams. We came to become doctors; we were the star pupils from our Secondary Schools, but at COMAHS, none of that mattered. It was a bitter/sweet experience all in all. I am so proud of us. We’ve been together since 4th year. Through thick and thin, I never saw a class as united as we were. We made some changes, changed some rules, we had each other’s backs, we lost all the competitiveness we had in high school and just wanted to pass. In school, everyone fights for first prize. In COMAHS you just fight to pass as there’s a common saying at COMAHS there’s no Honours or Division 1 and 2. Everyone gets an MBCHB. Whether you score 90% or 50%, you all graduate with MBCHB.

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7 responses to “The diary of a medical student by Dr. Bintu Mansaray

  1. My sister, i cannot say how much I am proud of you. Those 8 years were indeed terribly difficult for you as I now realize the intensity of the feelings you had and the activities you were going through. I wish I was there. Anyway, they say, the harder the struggle the sweeter the victory. Savour your success and pray for the best. I will continue to pray for you and wish you the best, In Sha Allah. Your nephew can’t wait to be treated by Dr Aunty. Bintu

  2. Highly motivational. shivers knocks my spine, and tears filled my eyes.
    I love this sentence “I got the call that I succeeded. I was finally a doctor. Dr. Bintu Mansaray. I just said thanks and switched off my phone. I couldn’t scream or shout rejoice, I was just numb and could hardly relieved believe 8 years had just whizzed by”.
    Bintu I just want you to know that you’re destined for greater things.
    Keep the dream alive!!! .

  3. Screaming congratulations once again……may the future be especially bright.
    Am proud of you sis….. always keep your head up!

  4. Congrats Dr. Bintu Mansaray. Just wanna say I am proud of u & u’re definitely an inspiration to others dat no matter how hard it is, if u have a focus nothing can stop u. I must say dat some of da professors made it very hard for u guys. Once more I say Kudos.

  5. Thanks a lot for the literature.Has really motivated me a lot especially since medical school in kenya is a lot more like this and those not attending it dont seem to understand the pressure that comes along with med school

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