The right balance: A day in the life of a VCU medical student

The right balance: A day in the life of a VCU medical student

Sometimes Karen Brown and her roommate, Sarah Elizabeth Smith, just have to dance.

Simultaneously – they both know when it’s time – they stand up from their respective desks, find a song on YouTube, turn up the volume in their downtown Richmond apartment, close their eyes and spin and sing.

Waiting for them back at their desks is a labor they both love, but it is a labor that occasionally requires  this sort of pirouetting reprieve.

Brown and Smith are first-year students at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine, and the daily grind of medical school, especially the adjustments and demands of the first year, can be unnerving.

Balance and perspective are keys to success and sanity.

“It’s nice to have someone who lives with you who is doing the same thing because we’re really supportive,” Brown said. “Even just five minutes of dancing or something like that makes a world of difference. When we’re in our apartment studying for an exam for hours, it’s important to have a good time.”

Brown’s long days often start at 6 a.m. with a yoga or cycling class. She said exercise is not only her stress reliever, but also what helps her focus later when studying or in class.

The weekday walk to her 8 a.m. class is a striking one. Living and going to school in downtown Richmond provides the opportunity for Brown to walk through Virginia’s Capitol Square and in the shadow of the Virginia General Assembly Building, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson – a familiar architect for Brown since her time as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia.

In her U.Va. days, from 2008 to 2012, Brown’s classes consisted mostly of art history and French, which were her two majors. She did, however, make sure to take all of the appropriate health and science prerequisites because she has known since middle school that she wanted to one day attend medical school.


When Brown was in sixth grade she met a child in the island country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines whose experience started Brown down the road she travels today.

Brown watched her parents – an ophthalmologist and a urologist – care for the sick and disadvantaged in that Caribbean country, where they had traveled with a nonprofit health care organization.

“I specifically remember meeting a little girl for whom my mom performed strabismus surgery to correct for crossed eyes,” Brown said. “The way the girl and the girl’s mother interacted with my mother showed me how much of an impact she had made on the child’s life.”

Brown’s mother explained that the girl’s condition affected her vision and her self-confidence, but that now, as she healed, not only should her vision improve, but also her confidence.

Brown still holds dear the memory and the anticipation of what it can be like to change lives through medicine, and as she explores opportunities in pediatric surgery, she is in a perfect position to one day deliver that change.

New curriculum

This year Brown has taken courses that include Immunity and Infection, Marrow and Movement, Molecular Basis of Health and Disease, and Principles of Physiology – many of which she’s taken during a block between 8 a.m. and noon.

After that morning block of classes, and then lunch, Brown’s days move in varying directions based on the calendar. Some days she has more traditional or team-based-learning classes, some days there is an opportunity to study, and on other days, she works with advanced simulation mannequins or completes patient consultations.

At this point in her education, Brown’s patients are actors in VCU’s standardized patient program, and their presence represents one of the advantages of attending the VCU School of Medicine.

Brown’s class, the class of 2017, is the first to experience the school’s brand new curriculum.

First-year medical students at the university, once relegated to traditional stadium-style lecture courses, now work with standardized patients, advanced robotic simulation patients and student colleaguesfrom the schools of nursing, pharmacy and allied health professions to diagnose and treat disease as early in their education as the first year. In fact, they work with the standardized patients by their fifth day of medical school.

These advantages are made possible through the Center for Human Simulation and Patient Safety, which is housed in the VCU School of Medicine’s new state-of-the-art McGlothlin Medical Education Center.

“What’s great is you start applying things from the get-go. You’re solidifying what you’re learning and putting it into the context you’ll be using later,” Brown said. “The interview is the most important part of the patient encounter because you get a lot of the information you need to make a diagnosis and plan, and that is a learned skill that takes a long time and a lot of practice to hone.”

The new curriculum also emphasizes team-based learning, small group classrooms and integration of basic science and clinical medicine.

“The basic science principles are taught in tandem with pathology and treatment,” said Ike Wood, M.D., senior associate dean for medical education and student affairs at the VCU School of Medicine. “Students not only learn content, but to think critically, problem-solve and interact from day one as a member of a team.”

In addition to accelerating early growth in becoming doctors, the team-based approach helps foster camaraderie among the students.

“Getting to interact with people who have the same goals and life motivation as I do is my favorite part,” Brown said. “Everyone has the same mentality and everyone wants to be here and feels lucky to be here, so the environment to me is always really positive and everyone is supportive. We’re in this together and that’s a really neat environment.”

Even if not all of her classmates spontaneously dance and sing midway through studying for an exam, Brown knows she shares interests beyond academics with her School of Medicine colleagues.

In May she trained for and ran the Monument Avenue 10k with a student running group. She is also planning a trip this summer with the student-led 501(c)(3) nonprofit Rural Education and Community Health for Ghana (REACH 4 Ghana).

Balance and perspective

After a day of classes or work in the simulation center, Brown sometimes attends networking and mentor events, but typically she studies at home for several hours – until past 11 p.m. on many nights – and goes to the gym if she has time.

“Studying so much isn’t so bad,” she said. “The material is interesting, I like the topic and I enjoy learning about medicine. It’s challenging because of the amount of material and the time commitment.”

Despite a demanding schedule, Brown has learned balance.

“I try to get in non-school time every day,” she said. “I go to the gym and run, but it’s also important for my mental health to interact with the world outside of school.

“School is so important to me – and getting to where I want to be – but I know it is important to live right now, to maintain relationships and to be a full person.”

With this balance comes perspective for Brown. She said her parents help her in this regard.

“If I go home and hang out with my parents and my dog, I kind of see what the point is,” she said. “I can talk to them about their days and hear about how they help patients.

“It reminds me of why I’m doing this.”


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Karen Brown interviews a standardized patient in the VCU School of Medicine Center for Human Simulation and Patient Safety.
Click to view slideshow. Karen Brown interviews a standardized patient in the VCU School of Medicine Center for Human Simulation and Patient Safety.