Dear Me, MD:
Now that you have opened this letter, you may have graduated or maybe you just matched into residency — somewhere, anywhere, hopefully?! As you read this, it should be some time during spring 2017. But, you never know, sometimes the train derails, and it takes a little longer than expected, so forgive yourself if that is the case. You learned a while back that the fast lane is overrated so never mind months or years. You now have the degree that you worked so tirelessly for; the one they told you that you would never get; the degree that bears the title I know you will probably never feel is real.
So why did I write you this letter? Well, I wrote you this letter from the perspective of a naïve third-year medical student — one who goes through her day feeling inadequate, out of place and, well, often like a fraud. Sporting a white coat and stethoscope every day feels like wearing an ill-fitted Halloween costume devoid of trick-or-treats. Yesterday, a psychiatrist asked you if you grew up on a farm and then proceeded to tell you that as far as medical students go, you were the equivalent of a “eukaryotic diploid at best.” (Whatever that means, you probably still do not know, but clearly, you were the antagonist to this gentleman’s esteemed Freud). I digress, but my point is this, I know these feelings of inadequacy will all resurface in residency. I am sure the comments will slap you across the face and knock you to the ground. You will keep getting back up, and soon enough, before you know it, there will come a time when the role will flip. You will finally be in the position of making people feel adequate or inadequate. You can knock people down or pick them up. My advice to you is to always pick them up, fill their white coat pockets with trick-or-treats and make it fit better.
I also wrote you this letter so you never forget where you came from, so you always remember the journey — as a reminder in case you feel disillusioned, desensitized or overworked. So here it goes:
Don’t ever make someone feel like nothing in attempt to boost your own self-esteem in an attempt to prove you know more. Don’t ever lose the ability to say “I don’t know,” to ask for help or to say “I’m sorry.” Don’t let your skin get so thick you lose your ability to feel. Don’t let your ego grow so big that it clouds your vision and more importantly your humanity. Always be humble and remember the privilege you have been given — the privilege to enter into people’s lives in a capacity that you never before fathomed.
Remember patients are people no different than you. Regardless of our title, we all get up in the morning, brush our teeth and put our pants on- that’s right- one leg at a time. Despite our varying beliefs and backgrounds, all of our voices deserve to be heard. Learn from the wisdom of your patients and colleagues. Always be kind to the nurses because — that’s right — they are the living saints of the world. Smile and say hello to everyone and I mean everyone: security guards, technicians, cleaning staff and the lovely man who makes you your coffee in the morning. Realize your job would not be possible without them. Be nice to medical students, PA students, nursing students, high school students, everyone and anyone make them feel welcome. When you notice them standing in a corner trying not to get in the way or awkwardly fidgeting, see your third-year self in them and invite them over. Give them a place when they are feeling out of place. Be the person that makes it less uncomfortable, the person who teaches and never forgets where she came from. It certainly was not long ago you were in their shoes. When years pass, and it is a long time ago, do not ever forget that we all started out the same. We are all in this together.
Even when you are a seasoned pro, when you know you can do it better, faster, more efficiently, let students get their hands dirty. Let them do, not just watch. You will make their day, maybe even their week. Remember the residents and doctors who handed you the supplies and said, “Go?” Yes, of course, you felt more fraudulent than you did when you put on your white coat for the first time. You felt sorry for the patient who was your guinea pig, subject to your sweaty, shaky, novice hands. But, you were never more grateful for the experience to learn and get involved, to feel a part of the team, to build your confidence that maybe this wasn’t as tough as you thought.
Be nice and be kind, of course. But, don’t ever be scared to stand up for what you believe in. Don’t let anyone silence you with anger, hate or an overwhelming ego. Don’t be scared to speak your mind, to say things you thought as a student but never said because you were afraid you would get in trouble. Push boundaries and constantly challenge yourself because discomfort is the steppingstone to greatness. It is the only way we will see change, expand our knowledge and improve our profession.
Lastly, remember your job is important, but not above any other profession. It’s simply different. As a physician, you will renew life and watch it fade away — these are facts. It is your choice, however, to be compassionate and stay humble. This letter is a reminder to make the right choice.
Danielle Bottalico is a medical student.
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