Division of Hospital Medicine
Zuckerberg San Francisco
Assistant Professor of Medicine,
Alessandra Colaianni, MD
Chief Resident in Otolaryngology
Head and Neck Surgery
Massachusetts Eye and Ear
Harvard Medical School
This is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.
It’s a weird time to be a medical student. This year, Match Day happened in isolation, final rotations were canceled, and some students graduated early to work on Covid19 wards. You’ve read all about these hardships in endless op-eds. But no one is talking about the biggest hardship of all: that the pandemic has prevented medical students from creating a fresh crop of parody videos.
We’re kidding. But really, parody videos are a vital part of medical student subculture. Medical school doesn’t always (ever?) reward creativity or playfulness, but each spring, the clouds of medicine’s seriousness part, revealing a clear blue day of institutionally-sanctioned fun. The parody video serves as a morale booster, a celebration of goals attained, and a recruitment tool for future generations of students. But it’s also an alternate reality where we dare to examine our profession, and ourselves, through the lens of satire.
Some videos are grainy and low-fi. Others have surprisingly good production value. We were shocked to learn that some schools have a legitimate funding mechanism for these (cough — Stanford — cough). The singing is pitchy, the editing choppy, and the writing heavy-handed, but the raggedy quality of these videos gives them indelible charm.
Common themes in these videos include: a desire to learn (and an education system that rewards the hypercompetitive “gunner”), a fear of incompetence, loss of hobbies and a social life, the twisted relationship to the medical student’s “bible,”
In honor of medical students graduating in 2020, we have compiled our favorite medical student parody videos from the past decade.
Medical students: We love you. Be safe. And thank you for making us smile.
Institution: UCLA SOM
Date: July 2016
We love this simple, unpretentious video. The writing isn’t excellent. The art direction isn’t excellent. Parts of it are slow. But filmed largely at dusk, this video conveys a delicious, moody longing. You can really feel how the students, who are being inculcated into medicine’s culture of suffering and self-discipline, are beginning to grieve their old selves. The scene where the patient falls through the cracks makes for great political commentary. And the guitar solo at the end is virtuosic.
Institution: UChicago Pritzker SOM
Date: March 2016
This song from Fiddler — wholesome, before degenerating into cynicism and dread — is the perfect choice for a Match Day parody, and well-executed by this trio. The best part is the dig at the Brigham. Brutal!
#8: It’s Not a Zebra!
Institution: Harvard SOM
Date: April 2017
This video shines for its tight narrative arc: When a new patient arrives at the hospital, a gaggle of Harvard medical students embarks on a diagnostic journey, ticking off numerous rare diseases until one of them realizes, in a state of panic and disappointment, that the patient actually just has the flu. It’s a comical and self-aware exploration of the medical student’s egocentric desire to become a “diagnostic genius” — even at the expense of truth.
Institution: Albert Einstein COM
Date: February 2014
The redheaded protagonist, with her cascading locks and crystal-clear singing voice, kills it as Belle in this re-imagining of the beloved Disney classic. The library scene is on point, and the frenetic, overlapping lyrics that ensue really capture the “water from a firehose” dilemma of M2 year. And the Gaston/Lefou exchange is perfect! We only wish they’d gotten some of that Stanford $$ for a better camera.
#6: I Don’t Know
Institution: UChicago Pritzker SOM
Date: May 2014
On the surface, this video seems saccharine and unoriginal — do we really need another “Let it Go?” — but it’s actually quite subversive for a medical student to talk about how incompetent she is, not just in 1-2 throwaway lyrics, but for an entire song. It’s a promising ripple of humility in the vast, unmoving ocean of medical perfectionism. We also love the single grizzled senior faculty member, who commits to his role with aplomb.
#5: UCSF Accepted Students Weekend Video
Institution: UCSF SOM
Date: April 2019
We start with a song choice “fake out,” followed by sweeping establishing shots of San Francisco (hello, drones), before settling into the main bit, where the students sing earnestly about the merits of their school. The lyrics aren’t as poppin’ as those of its competitors, and the students’ message of optimism begs to leavened with humor or irony. But the choreography is next-level; we could watch the lead dancer all day.
#4: thank u, next
Institution: Stanford SOM
Date: March 2019
The opening credits of this video look like they’re ripped right out of Hollywood, and the gauzy footage looks like it was shot on film. The snobby, red-lipped administrator from the “East Coast” is the perfect villain: focused on achievement for achievement’s sake, she stokes the medical student’s core fear of worthlessness. Stanford, by contrast, is portrayed as a Promised Land where the sun shines year-round, the Deans love you for YOU, and students pirouette around Spanish courtyards. Whether any of this is true is up for grabs, but it makes for great viewing.
#3: Rank List
Institution: Yale SOM
Date: February 2015
This video starts with the usual trope of the medical student being “wooed” by a residency program (see: “thank u, next”), but then takes things a step further, with an honest foreshadowing of the sad reality that lies ahead once training begins. Burned-out residents smash walls with hammers and cut holes in our protagonist’s scrubs, which fall haplessly off his body, as if in an anxious nightmare. In the final frame, our mentor-turned-abuser gives us a confrontational stare, daring us to proceed to residency. Shiver.
#2: What Does the Spleen Do?
Institution: Harvard SOM
Date: December 2013
In this video, which makes excellent use of autotune, the narrator hobnobs at a masquerade ball with the body’s vital organs, naming each one’s biologic function with a delightful mounting of narrative tension, before admitting to confusion about the spleen. He tries out different explanations for its existence (storage for your extra teeth?), before watching it escape from a human body, and dash toward the lobby to lead the students in a lawless rave. This video packs a wapa-papa-papa-papa-powerful dose of weird into an already weird concept. A surrealist masterpiece.
These two videos, created in 2012 and 2013 by auteur Vanessa Prokuski, collectively occupy our #1 slot as a diptych. Her videos overflow with clever puns and double entendres (Med mobster / treat zoster / helpin all of my shingle ladies) without relying too heavily on inside jokes or faculty cameos. Prokuski’s rapper alter-ego is dripping with charisma; somehow, she is able to project both the confidence of CardiB and the vulnerability of a student with much to learn (by contrast, see the abrasive “Gunner Song”). This, combined with stellar art direction, make for a transcendent viewing experience.
PS: Prokuski went on to become a hand surgeon, so imagine our delight when we discovered her alter ego resurrected in this 2019 piece, which is more phalange-centric but witty as ever. And her always-strong wig game is now off the charts.
Dr. Emily Silverman is a hospital medicine physician at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, and creator/host of the medical storytelling podcast The Nocturnists, which is currently airing COVID-19 audio diaries from healthcare workers.
Dr. Alessandra Colaianni is a chief resident in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Harvard Medical School. She also writes.