The moments that define the job of a physician

One of the most intense moments of my third-year of medical school was during my internal medicine clerkship when a code blue was called.

It was our responsibility as medical students on the inpatient service to report to every code blue while we were on our calls every 4th night. This time was no different, and my call partner and I ran to the code. When we arrived, I recognized the patient as someone I had admitted a few days prior myself.  I witnessed my team of residents running the code with a cardiologist supervising, The designated ICU resident was ordering epinephrine, the patient was being defibrillated, and no matter what was tried, our patient wasn’t coming back. Aggressive chest compressions had been ongoing and were still continuing.

As I took my turn compressing the patient’s chest, I started to become out of breath, as I had recently had an upper respiratory infection myself that was continuing to drain the energy out of me. Despite this, I kept thinking, my patient deserves every ounce of effort above and beyond what a virus could take from me.  I may be having a weak moment – this patient is technically already dead. He needs everything I have in me to have any moment back.  I continued to compress knowing that it was those motions that distributed the blood for his body. What an important job.

Sadly, despite running the code for an extended time, our patient never regained a pulse. Walking away, it took a moment to digest that in what was a split second of my 30-hour call, a person had his last second of his life. Seconds matter. It’s easy to forget this as we plod through call after call, clerkship after clerkship, and patient after patient during medical school. What is just a small part of our day can be seconds that change a patient’s life forever. The difference between life and death, the birth of a baby, the diagnosis of an illness, or a lifesaving surgery can happen in just seconds. Yet, we travel from these poignant moments to a coffee break or lunch and often don’t give a second thought to how many lives were changed forever during a single hour’s timeframe.

This job is an honor. As my classmates and I wearily approach fourth-year, many of us are thinking about residency applications, away rotations, and graduation. Yet, the tiny moments that make up our days now are still these same tiny moments that change the course of our patients’ lives. The opportunity to take a few extra minutes with our patients to do a really good physical exam, or comfort a spouse, or explain one more time the details of an illness could change the course of someone’s life – is priceless. It is within these moments that define the job of a physician.

No matter how many patients we see in a day, how many surgeries we perform, or how many times the same situation presents itself to us medically, let us not forget that in that moment, those seconds of need and urgency may be seconds that our patient has been waiting to have with us – their physicians – all day long. These moments are life changing, these illnesses are life altering, and they are unique to them. As my ethics professor has always told us, let us never forget that first, we are doctors. This is who we are. It is our very profession that gives us the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our patients. Let’s not waste any of our seconds.

Allison Overmon is a medical student.

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