y father, now a semi-retired doctor, still clearly recalls the miseries of medical school. It wasn’t the long hospital hours he minded. He enjoyed tending to patients in his third and fourth years. What drove him crazy were the first two preclinical years. In my father’s time and now, 40 years later, that was when medical students studied subjects that include anatomy, biochemistry, pharmacology, and embryology.
Those two years aren’t about medicine, my dad told me. They’re about learning another language.
When I heard bits of that language as a young girl — a young girl who absolutely adored her father — I knew immediately that I would feel the same way if I ever went to medical school. I would hate this language-learning process. I would also be subjected to two years of misery.
Then something changed. As I grew up I discovered I actually enjoyed learning languages. In high school, I started studying Spanish and was nearly fluent by the time I reached college. After a brief bout with biology, I chose journalism as my major and honed my native language skills. For years I thrived on words, both foreign and familiar.
But with a physician for a father and a nurse for a mother, science percolated in my blood. It wouldn’t go away. I returned to earn a science degree in 2010, and worked in research labs until mid-2014. I have since returned to the publishing world — but this time for a medical publishing company. Part of my job is to review books written for surgeons. My first foray into those pages left me dazed. I Googled words left and right, sometimes the same words repeatedly because the meaning refused to stick. So I convinced my employer to pay for an online medical terminology course to help me understand what I was reading.
After only a few lessons, the terms I was reading for at work — the same ones I had heard growing up — began making sense:
Osteotomy. Bone (osteo) cut/incision (otomy).
Atherosclerosis. Hardening (sclerosis) due to plaque deposits (athero). Hepatomegaly. Liver (hepato) enlargement (megaly).
Rather than memorizing lists, I am now learning how to construct individual words — and to deconstruct them. It’s a rational, thoughtful process. It’s also … fun. For someone who likes learning languages, at least. For me.
When learning Spanish, I picked up the grammar quickly — how to conjugate verbs, how to make singular nouns plural, how to form feminine versus masculine adjectives. Medical terminology has its own set of rules. First, you need to understand the components. Medical terms can have up to three parts. The word root, also called the combining form, usually indicates the body part involved. “Myo” mean muscle, for example. “Spondylo” means vertebrae.
The suffix generally indicates the procedure or disease — “itis” means inflammation, while “ostomy” means a surgically created opening. The prefix usually shows time, location, number, or status. “Peri” means surrounding; “tachy” means rapid. There are a few basic rules for combining these word parts, mostly about avoiding double vowels. (As in all grammar, there are exceptions, and these you must simply memorize.) Once you know the basic word parts and how to assemble them you can identify unfamiliar words. You can even devise ones you’ve never seen or heard before. It’s word wizardry.
Puzzling out meanings appeals to the little girl in me who devoured Nancy Drew books and dreamed of cracking big cases. Creating words appeals to the artist in me who still crafts with colored wire and shiny beads. The orderly rules used to both identify and build words appeals to the organizer in me who hangs her clothes in the bedroom closet according color, in order of the rainbow. Learning to use these words appeals to the scientist in me who spends her free time looking up medical journal articles. Being paid to indulge in these wonders appeals to the responsible grown-up in me who has a monthly car payment.
Encephalectasis. Brain stretching. I highly recommend it, whatever form yours may take.