Tina Brown, M.D.

By Emily Gold / September / October 1999
November 7th, 2007
A medical student's sleepy days and nights are spent peering over dead bodies and sick patients, memorizing countless scientific facts. The board exams loom ominously in the future. The life of a medical student, says Joshua Schiffman '96, '00 M.D., is "just a really big pressure cooker."

That's why Schiffman and fellow Brown medical students have created OnCall, a free journal for their peers distributed nationwide and intended to do three things: unite future doctors, nurture their talents for writing and drawing, and provide an outlet for reflecting on medical school. "Putting on that white coat is an entrance into a new world," Schiffman says. "We're striving to maintain our creativity in this sort of sterile environment." OnCall's staff includes editors-in-chief Schiffman and Joseph Hou '98, '02 M.D., as well as nine other Brown students; together these OnCallogists have so far produced two issues, the second of which was mailed in September to 30,000 students - about half of all U.S. medical students.

At first, turning a rough idea into a twenty-four-page magazine proved nearly impossible, especially with the staff juggling hospital rotations and exams. "It was weekends. It was the middle of the night. It was whenever we had time," says Schiffman, who founded OnCall last year along with Graham Gardner '95, '99 M.D.

Tracking down story ideas, writers, and artists was the easy part. The challenge was finding a way to pay for the printing and circulation. "We're medical students, not business students," Schiffman says. Though most medical journals are funded through drug-company advertising, such companies showed no interest in a publication by students. One pharmaceutical spokesman was brutally honest: "You're a little fish in the sea," he told Schiffman. "We don't care about little fish."

Working between rounds and classes, the students finally secured enough advertising - from the U.S. Army, a medical publishing company, and a board-exam review course - to put out the first OnCall in February. This premiere issue included advice on adjusting to hospital rotations, a first-person account of a trip to Haiti, and summaries of three student articles that were published elsewhere. A doctor described treating patients with infectious diseases, and a student wrote an article - illustrated with X-rays - that traced the symptoms of a patient who was eventually diagnosed with AIDS. The final touch was a chatty essay about the life of a medical student - a piece that "makes you laugh but also makes you think," says Schiffman, the author.

The first issue was a success, but the journal, already $3,000 in debt, failed to find the advertising needed to publish a spring issue. Hoping that a Web site would help attract advertisers, Hou took up residence in front of a computer screen from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily until he had taught himself how to create the site. The students had soon sold enough advertising to take the journal out of debt, and the September issue was under way.

"The thing is," Hou says, "it's a lot of fun. I'm able to get away from my books, to get away from all the science and focus on literature and writing." Schiffman agrees. "Ultimately it's rewarding," he says. "Either that or we're suffering from some weird obsessive compulsive disorder that we haven't learned about in class."

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Related Issue
September / October 1999