Taking a history with Dr. Ian Parkin

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 5.14.39 PMChristianne Knowles and Robyn Perry-Thomas meet a living legend.

A (hopefully) pointless introduction
I hope that by now you have all been lucky enough to have met the wonderful Dr. Ian Parkin. If you have, then this introduction is quite obviously unnecessary, and you are, I’m sure, already skimming through this article, eagerly looking for mentions of wavy rectal canals or peritoneal sheets… And if not, well, read on my deprived friend, and meet one of the most enthusiastic, engaging and personable lecturers in this school, and I suspect, in most others too.

Starting afresh

As a fresher, it’s natural to assume that everyone has been here forever, especially someone like Ian who seems to be completely at home in the lecture theatre. However, it turns out that Ian is as new as we were – ‘I was here for 2 days before you’ he tells us, ‘2 members of the anatomy department retired last year so a space opened up. They gave me a list of lectures and practical’s that I was go- ing to do, and obviously I know the material so it’s just a case of putting it all together. That might be why it looks as though I’ve been here a long time,’ he muses ‘because the anatomy is familiar although the venue is actually different’.

Why Medicine: the interview question we love to hate. But mainly hate – it is still an interview after all…
‘I would not get into medical school now’ says Ian simply. ‘You know, they would ask ‘why do you want to do medicine?’ and I’d say ‘because I want to learn about how the human body works.’ ‘They would not accept me.’ As we shuddered at the thought of opening that can of worms (I mean Pandora’s box) with Ian, he continues. ‘Being a doctor is not just knowing how the human body works, so at the stage I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and indeed, I would not get into medical school now, with comments like that’. But when did I start? In 1969, they did not have interviews.’

That awkward moment when you finish medical school and still don’t know if you want to be a doctor…
However, as many students discover, deciding to study medicine does not exactly take that ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’ question out of the equation. It just delays having to answer it for a bit, and after graduating from his hometown Aberdeen Medical School, Ian found himself with a bit of a dilemma.

‘I knew I wasn’t happy in medicine.’ Ian tells us. ‘You know, that’s all you’ve aimed at, that’s all your parents have wanted you to do and you’re doing your job and thinking ‘I don’t really like this.’

Fortunately for Ian, a demonstrator’s job opened up in London. ‘It was at Barts that I realised what it was that I wanted to do. I found that I thoroughly enjoyed the anatomy as a subject’ he says, ‘and quite honestly, I preferred working with healthy 18-19 year olds than with ill people’ he adds.

So, would he still apply to medicine if he were to do it again?
‘Now, that’s an interest- ing question’ he replies, ‘Although I said I went into medicine for the wrong reasons, when you say what else would you do – I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’d like to think that I’ve taken a medicine degree and used it for something else.’

There and back again
After working at Bart’s, Ian was a member of the anatomy team at Birmingham for 17 years. ‘Birmingham was terrific’ Ian says, ‘because that was the start of my career and I had the time to get to grips with the subject matter.’ From there, Ian spent several years working as a clinical anatomist in Cam- bridge. ‘I had superb colleagues there, same as here, and you could talk anatomy. When you’ve got experienced, knowledgeable colleagues that you can discuss things with you end up with different ways of thinking about the subjects and different approaches.

David Sinclair is absolutely incredible at this,’ he continues, ‘David’s got a wonderful way of seeing anatomy.’

Ian then moved back to Scotland to work at Dundee University, where he was based
at Ninewells hospital, supporting students in the study of anatomy throughout their clinical years. ‘Dundee was great’ says Ian, ‘St Andrews is terrific too,’ he continues ‘because I’m returning to the science I love.’

Dissection discussions…
‘I’m enjoying lecturing much more then I thought I would’ says Ian, when we ask him about his favourite part of the job. ‘It’s like speaking to a big, small group. However’ he continues ‘my real joy, I think, is when I’m working with small groups of students in the DR. Every so often the light goes on, you know, somebody will ask you a question, and you just say ‘come and look here’, and often it’s there on the body. Ahah! And seeing that light dawn – it’s a great feeling.’

But how important does Ian think working in the dissection room really is?

‘I like dissection and I think it’s hugely valuable for medical students, but I’m not going to sit here and say it’s the only way. There has been all sorts of work done over the years on what is the best way to learn anatomy, and I have never seen anything conclusive.’

Ian says, ‘I think they’re asking the wrong question. What is the best way to learn anatomy is a silly question and we shouldn’t try and answer it. We all learn in different ways and so by having a system where you’ve got some dissection, some looking at pro-sections, some lecturing, time in the ARC… hopefully you end up with a learning method in that system that suits everybody. Eventually.’

Timely tips: any advice for students, on how to use our time wisely..?
‘Well’ begins Ian, ‘There are always the glib answers of course –  about making sure you enjoy yourself and have fun and I do mean that. I think you have to stop and say, right, I’ve got
a small period in my life with an awful lot to experience. You’ve all left home for the first time, you are all supporting yourself for the first time, you are experiencing a freedom and a whole range of new experiences, that we won’t talk about… so you have to find the balance between that and the work’.

‘The sheer amount of information that you have to get through is scary and you need to find ways of dealing with it, of finding a structure that makes your learning more manageable.’ One thing Ian would suggest is that you question everything, and don’t memorise.

Last words?

‘I remember once’ Ian begins, ‘ when I found myself in A&E thinking: why can’t I remember the anatomy? And there’s that fear in ICU, you know: why can’t I remember the physiology? And then filling out prescriptions, thinking: why can’t I remember the pharmacology? My aim here is to minimize your fear. Of course, it will still be there. You will be in scary situations, but that’s part of the job.’

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