What it means to be sick as a medical student

For the first time since I have been in medical training, I got sick.

Not just the kind of sick where its a cold, or you know that its stress, but the kind of sick that does not go away and randomly comes up just to make you mad when you just want to have fun (like Cyndi Lauper says that a typical girl does). This sickness manifested itself in two ways: one, a seemingly harmless allergy-like illness that would come on strong and cause me to have asthma attacks after feeling perfectly fine the day before, and the other, a “stomach bug” in which I felt fine and would wake up the next day puking for the whole day straight.

Being sick, however annoying, made me realize just how different it is to be a sick “doctor in training”, instead of just a sick “regular” student.

When my pesky little allergy-like disease chose not to go away after over a month, I finally made an appointment at student health. The minute the doctor came in to see me, instead of asking what brought me in, or what I was suffering from, his first question to me was “HOW, as a MEDICAL STUDENT, could I POSSIBLY wait for 4 weeks before seeing a doctor?!”

I paused for a second, wondering to myself if it was appropriate to say that I still had no faith in his ability to fix what I had, and that I merely thought it would “go away” as illnesses most often do. I wondered if this then meant that I had no faith in medicine to fix most everyday problems and if I, like health care policy experts often complain about the typical American health care consumer doing, use our medical system for sickness, and always in the extreme. Oh well … too late to fix this problem. Then, as if to pre-empt every question he was going to ask me, I did exactly what I hate my patients doing in clinical training, I answered all the possible questions he could ask me before he even had a chance to speak. One by one I knocked off questions on the list in my head, rattling off my symptoms, my past medical history, my current medications, and even my drug allergies. It was as if I was interviewing myself. I did not even pause to wonder what this doctor could possibly want to ask me that I did not learn to ask myself in my all-encompassing medical interview training. It appears that doctor’s appointments will never be the same again.

Besides changing my doctor experience, when it came to my second illness, the infamous stomach flu, I received a lot more doctoring than I had intended. Upon beginning conversations about “how I was feeling” or “if I was feeling better” with my friends, they flipped the switch and were suddenly transformed into doctors interviewing a patient (a trait they could not shut off even though most realized they were doing it). I was asked about my complete history of present illness, including questions about my diet, how often I throw up, and the occasionally uncomfortable questions about what it looks like and how much pain I was in. Let’s just say it took the shared information between friends up a notch or two.

One friend, while encouraging me to go see a doctor (which I again put off, as I could not possibly see what a doctor could fix for a complaint of “occasionally throwing up three weeks apart”), even asked me if it was possible for me to have C. Diff because I had taken antibiotics for my sinus infection (conclusion from doctors appointment mentioned above) and those had cleared out my immunity to other things. That kind of drastic leap, and crazy, nonsensical diagnosis, even of yourself, comes from learning medicine, but not yet knowing medicine. In fact, one friend of mine took a quiz online and convinced herself she had Aspergers. Another realized that her broken clavicle had reattached to the wrong bone when it had healed.

With all of this diagnosing going on before we even really do pathology or learn anything about disease, I can’t even imagine what sort of hypochondria is to come in the future.

Jessica Gold is a medical student.

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  • Dr Chris

    This sllices both ways-I spent medical school exhausted-I chalked it up to a six year old and trying to be a mom and a med student. And I always had diarrhea or constipation.
    Saw my MD, told it was stress.
    At my residency physical, had a TSH of 40, and via a HGB of 9, found to have celiac disease-don’t ignore what’s real, and don’t anyone tell you you are fine.(this led to my maxim-common this are common-except for when they’re not…..)

  • stathappenz

    Great article my friend! Made me laugh after a tough day! Remids me when i was in nursung school (studying oncology at the time) and I actually went to the dr because I was convinced I had bone cancer. Turns out it was just a little benign, subq nodule on my shin.
    Flash forward a few years and it’s the complete opposite: I have a uri that goes on for a couple MONTHS,my asthma is flaring,pulse ox in the 80′s (neb tx at home holding me over tho) and my doc calls in Augmentin. So no worries,right? I thought the same thing, “oh, tomorrow I’ll feel better.” (also priding myself on not missing a day of work thru all this)…Then one day at work a pt walks by wearing perfme and that starts a little asthma situation,but hey,it’s quitting time now, so I gather up my stuff and hike out to the back 40 employee parking lot, and did I mention. it’s REALLY cold and windy out , which makes me start wheezing and gasping like crazy…so I am sucking down my albuterol inhaler like crazy, wondering why it’s not working. I manage to drive home but by then I could NOT breathe (never mind talk and barely crawled in the house) where I fell in the door and my husband called 911…so long story longer, I end up right back at the ED I just left AND find out my inhaler had expired 3 YEARS ago. OMG talk about feeling stupid! AND I ended up missing almost a week of work. I guess the moral of the story is med people ARE actually human ;)

  • http://myheartsisters.org/2009/05/22/know-and-go-during-heart-attack/ Carolyn Thomas

    Although of course it’s awful to be sick, I have to tell you that I laughed out loud at this story (and at subsequent comments – thank you for sharing!) It must be true: “med people ARE actually human!” :-) I’m wondering if these experiences now make it slightly less frustrating to encounter denial or non-compliance in your patients? Interesting research on women heart attack survivors, for example: an Oregon Health & Science University study published in The American Journal of Critical Care identified six common patterns of treatment-seeking delay behaviours (in mid-heart attack, no less!) that may sound familiar. These include:

    - “Knowing and Waiting” – (patients decided that they needed help, but delayed seeking treatment because they did not want to disturb others) or

    - “Minimizing” – (patients tried to ignore their symptoms or hoped the symptoms would go away, and did not recognize that their symptoms were heart- related)

    I’ve heard that health care professionals make the worst patients – do you think this may help to explain that theory? I like to think this experience will make you a better doctor one day, Jessica.

  • http://www.howtobesick.com Toni Bernhard

    I loved your article. I’ve been chronically ill for 10 years with flu-like symptoms and when my friends get sick they say, “Now I understand how you feel.” My guess is that this little episode will help you be a more understanding doctor. But next time, don’t wait so long to seek help! I’ve written a book for the chronically ill called, “How to Be Sick.” Lots of doctors tell me they’re giving it to their patients and that they wish they’d had it in medical school. They say for the first time they know what it’s like for their patients — much like your experience. Warm wishes, Toni

    • http://myheartsisters.org Carolyn Thomas

      I’d like to also recommend Toni’s book and website, “How To Be Sick”. Not only should doctors be giving this book to their patients, patients should be giving it to their docs. It’s a MUST-READ for all med students.

  • Jessi Gold

    Thanks everyone for these great stories and comments! I hope that my experiences will make me a better doctor and, from your comments and stories I know not to wait so long and to not always trust the first opinion :)

    THANKS for reading!!