How medical school changed me

I have been thinking a lot over the last few weeks about all the many ways that the experience of medical school has changed me.

The most obvious is knowledge. I’ve drunk from the proverbial “firehose” of information that we experience in medical school, and apparently enough of the facts stuck with me to pass all my exams, and secure myself a residency program back in my home state of California. I was blessed enough to match last month into a 5-year program, at the end of which I’ll be board certified in both family medicine and psychiatry. Significantly different from the pediatrician I thought I was going to be when I started med school, but at least I stuck (mostly) with primary care.

The change in specialty shows another way medical school has changed me. My focus shifted from just providing care for kids, to wanting to take care of the whole family. I discovered a love for truly comprehensive medicine, treating mind and body. I’ve overcome a lot of preconceived notions/fears of the mentally ill, and find myself led to try to help them, too. I can’t just stop at treating the individual, though. The individual patient exists in the context of the family. The family exists in the context of the neighborhood, the county, the state … I have discovered that I’m unable to limit myself in caring for just one or two dimensions that make up my patients’ existences. Thus, I find that I’ve become a social activist.

My political views have certainly changed as part of this. I was raised far-right, and naturally, those were my default views. I didn’t do much independent thinking in undergrad either, but I got out “on my own” during medical school, and what I saw changed a lot of how I thought. It started with capital punishment — I’m now against it. I’ve seen what a lot of ruthless for-profit corporations have done to honest, hard-working people (and also less honest, less hard-working people, too). I’m a lot more sympathetic to the homeless and impoverished. The list goes on, but I find myself a just a bit left of center now. That’s a far jump from the staunch conservative I used to be.

You’d probably not be surprised to find out that my changing views have disgruntled a few people in my life. When I told my wife that I was against the death penalty a few years ago, her response was, “I didn’t marry a Democrat!” My thoughts on for-profit insurance companies don’t always jive with those around me, either.

In fact, I’ve found that many of my experiences in medical school, I can only really share with those who have gone on the journey as well, either with me or before me. I’ve seen people die. I saw a man shot in the head by a jealous girlfriend. I saw a woman who very nearly died of a heart attack in bed with her husband, but she lived. Children with incurable diseases, young adults with cancer, grandmothers and grandfathers with dementia. My hands have been inside people, I’ve been covered in their blood, I’ve worked 36 hours straight, the list goes on and on.

These experiences are hard to just tell other people about, and have them understand. I tried telling someone once about a man who came into the trauma bay with a leg broken and bleeding in many places. My job was to hold his leg still and straight while we moved him from the paramedic board onto the hospital gurney. I was sweating and my arms just felt horribly weak, but I knew I had to stay strong so I didn’t hurt this man’s leg any more than it was already. I resolved to get more in shape and increase my upper body strength, for him. So I wouldn’t have to worry about my physical limitations causing one of my patients pain. The non-medical person I told this story to just didn’t understand.

Just last week, someone told me, “Doctors just don’t care about patients.”

I hear all the time, “Doctors are stupid.”

“They just push drugs (or vaccines) on you.”

“They’re in the pocket of the drug companies.”

There’s some basis for these statements, of course, but I cringe whenever I hear them. More and more, I feel a close kinship to my colleagues, brothers and sisters in medicine. We’ve been through a LOT together. We’ve cried together … tears of joy and tears of sadness. We’ve sacrificed a lot to be doctors … time (at least 8 years of education after high school), money (I’m exiting with $300,000 of debt), and immeasurable energy, emotion, care, and missed opportunities because we were working hard.

Medical school has changed me a lot, and I hope with all my heart that all my experiences will make me an excellent doctor. We’ve been through a lot, we’ve done it together, and, even if we don’t always do it well, we’ve done it with the one main goal of providing excellent care for you.

“Doctor” Matt is a medical student who blogs at “Doctor” Matt’s Musings.

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  • SophieZhou

    I am looking forward to the medical school experience. I can’t wait. What’s the greatest change you see in yourself? What’s the worst change? 

    - http://www.alittlehappi.blogspot.com

  • http://twitter.com/cantubury kent norton

    affairs of the head of the chemically imbalanced are noble, but only 1% of docs go with geriatrics. any interest…we are all getting older and like the speed of light, its constant…just a suggestion; we do not change; a tadpole morphs into a frog, we grow till we die; then its just another cycle.good luck

    • Matthew Gibson

      Thanks for the comment, Kent. One niche I am thinking about filling with my combined family medicine/psychiatry training is the geriatric population with advanced dementia, since I would be well qualified to treat such people.

  • Laura Thomas

    I totally can relate to wanting to be in better shape to be a better doctor. I am aspiring to be a certified nurse midwife and know that labor and delivery nursing in intensely physically demanding. I don’t want to be  ineffective at helping my patients or so wiped out (or injured!) that I can’t arrive home ready to hug my kids. Good luck in your residency program and get to the gym!

  • abcsofra

    Change is good. You will make a wonderful doctor because you listen, you have compassion, and you show your human side. All of these mixed together make for one terrific doctor as well as one terrific human being.

  • http://www.zdoggmd.com ZDoggMD

    Medicine has changed you indeed! Now it’s time for you to return the favor. Help us fix our non-system and disrupt the way medicine will be taught, reimbursed, and practiced. Welcome, brother!

    And BTW, isn’t a pediatrician just a family practice doc and a psychiatrist combined? Treat kids’ medical problems and parents’ neuroses! Not sure you strayed from your original career path at all my friend…

    • Matthew Gibson

      ZDogg!! I have been following you online for several years now, and am a huge fan of your videos! Thanks for commenting and the welcome; I am definitely passionate about trying to fix our broken system! You make a good point about my path…

  • http://mrepidemiology.com/ Mr Epidemiology

    I enjoyed this post and thank you. However, I don’t think that your experience is unique to just medical school. Anyone who pursues higher education and immerses themselves in learning rather than regurgitating will “discover” different viewpoints and amalgamate them into their own perspective of the world. Growing as a person and learning more about not only the world, but how you hope to fit into it, is a key part of how we all spend our 20s. Sure, the stories won’t be as dramatic as yours as we’re not saving lives, but the changes you describe are still there.

    Good luck in your residency! California is a beautiful state!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ninguem-Arg/100002946249929 Ninguem Arg

  • Bishan25

    Thanks Dr Matt,

    I can relate to this post on many levels (and the comments below). I like how you have allowed the process of caring for patients to foster change (or perhaps expansion) in your political and social views – and also I admire how you have the courage to talk about it – great stuff. I have noticed changes within myself and become a great advocate of “peace” after working in emergency. For I find it very difficult to just treat patients and switch off to the fact that most of the trauma we see is preventable especially when it is due to violence of any form (eg war – including the weapons production industry). Imagine how powerful it would be if there was a majority world-wide consort of doctors who said war was not tolerable – regardless of country of origin? (food for thought)
    I also really like how you highlight that it is difficult for many who have not gone through the process to understand what is means to practice medicine. My brother is a plastic surgeon and I am in the process of doing a residency in Emergency Medicine, and thus far the things we have seen, done and gone through, many would not believe. I have found that theatre/film is something that helps support, ease or make sense of some of these experiences (joy’s, conflicts and all!). I recently wrote about this in my blog when writing about a remote Emergency Department job out in Rural Australia ( http://bishansworld.posterous.com/dubbo-base-hospital-and-locuming-in-rural-eds ). I also follow ZDogg’s satirical medical comedy and love it for that reason – some of the stuff that happens is so out there it is comical (http://youtu.be/G78CDQFcw5o ) – I believe the more we present this material to ourselves and other (doctors and non doctors alike) the more we promote understanding, team work, and ultimately better patient care. Again thanks Matt for a great article!Keep up the good work KevinMDCheersBish :)