How social media helped this medical student

In the course of our work as doctors we will undoubtedly witness events that change lives, but coming into medical school I never realized how directly some of these events would change my life.

Often in medicine we see people at the worst possible time. Patients are sick or grieving and rarely happy to be in our presence, no matter how great we might think we are. Usually, they are experiencing things we’ve never experienced, things we understand on a molecular level, but not on a personal level. We don’t know what it’s like, so we draw on our experiences, the experiences of past patients and the knowledge we’ve gained in our training, then do our best to play the role of both healer and comforter.

But, as students, our pool of past patients with similar experiences to draw on may be limited. How do we ensure we are great providers for our patients when we have absolutely no clue how they feel? When our experiences are limited what do we base our actions on?

I believe social media has a role here.

Because I’m interested in OB-GYN and reproductive endocrinology I keep track, via Twitter and blogs, of several women’s journeys through infertility and pregnancy loss. I have silently watched from the sidelines as they supported each other through loss, openly shared their heartache with strangers and expressed what they medical professionals had done, or not done, for them while they were hurting.

When I happened to be the first provider into the room to see a woman who was miscarrying, I wasn’t entirely uncomfortable. I’ve never been through pregnancy, but it was almost like I had an army of compassionate friends providing me with insight I could not have had otherwise.

Without these women I would have asked a list of questions and immediately left that room, because I would have been uncomfortable and at a loss for what to say without making things worse.

Instead, I knew this patient likely wanted someone to listen, that she might benefit from hearing this wasn’t her fault and there was nothing she could have done differently or better. I understood the importance of letting her know she was allowed to feel however she felt, whether that be devastated, numb or even relieved. She needed to hear from someone that she was allowed to grieve, that feelings of loss were valid and that, even though I had no idea on a personal level what she was experiencing, I was going to do everything I could to support her.

Without trying, without being paid, without PowerPoints or lectures, these women online taught me how to be a compassionate caretaker in a situation I did not understand.

As I walked out of my patient’s room that day I knew she had a long road ahead of her, but I was confident I had helped her. I left realizing that, without social media, the night would have gone quite differently. I left knowing nothing in medical school would have prepared me to be confident enough to begin to handle this situation I could not possibly understand.

Most importantly, I left knowing she had helped me more than I helped her, because she had opened my eyes to the fact that everyone is a teacher, even on the Internet.

Medical school teaches us how to handle situations we can control, ones we can fix or change or at least slow down – not how to handle emotionally-heavy situations where a negative outcome is inevitable and immediate.  Only experiences teaches that.

Danielle Jones is a medical student who blogs at Mind on Medicine.

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