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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