I will walk into the hospital with a clean, ironed white coat buttoned to the top, dress shoes polished, a tie neatly knotted under my collar, my maroon stethoscope rearing to go — and I will be largely unprepared for what lies ahead. Along with countless others across the country, I will begin my medical internship, a year considered by many to be the most important in a physician’s working life.
After twenty-plus years of school, one would think himself ready to begin a career as a doctor. But if this past week of orientation has taught me anything, it is that we are all wildly nervous for what is ahead, and that is OK. Part, if not most, of this emotion, is because the lives of other human beings will now be our direct responsibility. While this is a job for which we are wholly committed — one that many of us have waited for patiently yet eagerly — it is also a duty by which we are greatly humbled. And in that humility, there is an immense pressure to make sure we are doing right by our patients.
I suspect this anxiety also arises from the hard, unforgiving reality that there will be times — many of them I’m sure — in which despite our best efforts, we will be unable to change the course of life and death. We will quickly realize that while we need not be limited by our compassion or our skills, we undoubtedly will be by the inevitability of those unexplainable things beyond our control. In these moments, I know we will find our sense of purpose, and I hope we will share our deepest empathy with those in need.
While our medical knowledge will certainly grow as we treat many patients over our careers, a much more important measure that most physicians fail to remember is the slow loss of our compassion. As new residents, we are constantly reassured that we will learn on the job, yet we rarely talk about how a life in medicine can easily push us away from the values that brought us here to begin with. The hours will be longer than any we have felt; there will be days and nights where we question our decisions; quiet moments that will seem unfair; and bad outcomes for which we will blame ourselves. But through all of this, our compassion cannot be compromised, for a physician without compassion is hardly a physician at all.
At my training hospital, two mottos stuck with me in particular and will guide much of my internship in the year to come.
The first, shared with us by the president of our hospital: “You cannot care for your patients if you do not first learn to care for each other.”
I have found that as much as medicine is a team sport, teamwork is fueled by friendship, not obligation. And thus, caring for our fellow physicians is unquestionably important.
The second, told to our intern class by one of our hospital’s most beloved educators: “Good judgment comes from experience. But experience comes from bad judgment.”
At our hospital, there is a deep-rooted belief that no health care provider should be worrying alone because there is always support. It is expected that we all — not just interns — will make mistakes. In those times, there will be others to help teach us as long as we are ready to learn. It will be our attitudes more than our abilities that will determine what kind of doctors we become.
As a new doctor, I want to assure all of you who we will treat as patients that despite our initial clumsiness, hesitation, and lack of encyclopedic medical knowledge, we will try our best, and we will care for you with our minds and our hearts.
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