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Your Patient Just Died

These are the dreaded words that a doctor hopes never to hear.

Yet, this is precisely what a young attending physician was told during his board exam. Our older son narrated this story last year. Newly minted attending physician walks into his oral board certification exam. In a rapid-fire sequence the examiner lists the symptoms of a hypothetical patient. Examinee breathlessly adjusts his responses and treatment plan. But not fast enough. Examiner abruptly holds up his hand and says, "Your patient just died." The. End.

Just like other kids, wannabe doctors start taking tests in Grade 3 with the CogAT, OLSAT, ITBS and whatnot. These are the tests I remember from two decades ago. The acronyms might have changed in the intervening years but test taking continues to be a rite of passage.

We've run the gamut of emotions from utter confusion to hilarity with our boys and their tests.

One had muddled comprehension. He thought in Bengali and couldn't translate into English fast enough, we were told. He was excellent at non-verbal communication though, as evidenced by the speed with which he made Mario leap over chasms. Sadly, there was no test on Nintendo skills.

The other came home after taking a standardized test and casually declared: "The teacher said to do the best I could, so I didn't answer 13 questions." WHAT?! No kid, you gotta finish. Your life depends on these tests. All year long, I sang this tune to him, so the next year he came home and declared: "I finished but I don't know if I got the right answers." Oh Noooo! You gotta finish correctly.

I fantasized about having this bumper sticker...

We dealt with school systems that told us, "Not everybody is a good test taker." Turns out that the entire world missed that memo. From undergraduate admissions, to professional and graduate schools, to years beyond for doctors, life centers on tests. Everywhere you go, it's the same story of kids learning what kind of questions to expect and knowing how to answer them.

As if test taking woe was not enough, my sons mastered the art and science of procrastination, at a rather young age. One was a planned procrastinator, the other winged it. I observed how they frequently snatched themselves from the throes of chaos at the very last moment, emboldened for the next time.

They eventually cracked the test-taking code. An indefinite verb in the question will relate to only one indefinite verb in the analogy answer choices. Read the questions before reading the passage and so on. With an arsenal full of tricks, they knew what to expect and what was expected of them.

Then came oral boards for my older one and all hell broke loose.

Up until that point, Tarun and I had never seen him so stressed about taking an exam. Not when he took the MCAT and not when he took the USMLE steps. The possibility that a hypothetical patient might pass in an untimely way grated on his mind. Despite his natural instinct to delay, he crammed for months, on his own and with a friend. Even warm weather after a brutal winter couldn't pry him from his laptop.

On the morning of the exam, he sent this battle cry to my phone: "Going in!!" Four hours later he called to recount his grueling experience with eight grim-faced examiners.

I asked if all of his "patients" survived. I think so, he said. I looked up and let out a hallelujah.

While he celebrates the end of his test-taking journey and his younger brother prepares to go into step-exam vortex, Tarun and I amusingly think of how they have moved from nonchalance to caring while we have moved in the opposite direction.

It took a few decades to get here but now that they can finally finish correctly, somebody please get me that bumper sticker. Stat.

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