July is the month that new resident physicians begin their training all across the United States.
Our future family physicians and pediatricians, neurosurgeons and emergency physicians, plastic surgeons and laser tattoo removal specialists (ok, not really a specialty, just a side-line) will begin learning how to be physicians, having completed four years of expensive college and four years of even more expensive medical school.
Anxiety-filled and debt-ridden, they will embark on four to seven (or even more) years of training to make them knowledgeable, technically proficient physicians.
I will occasionally wax poetic and philosophical for their benefit. But not today. Today there are practical matters. Today I want to give them a few pointers, to ease their transition into the maelstrom of post-graduate medical training.
1. Any flat surface that holds still, is free of gross body fluids and not used as a walk-way or cook-top will serve for a quick nap. Practice sleeping in odd positions: sitting upright, reclining at various angles, lying sideways or with your head cradled in your hands.
2. In my day (always wanted to say that!) we filled our fresh, white lab-coat pockets with review books, algorithms, reference manuals, scissors and calculators. And candy bars. You, doubtless, have a smart-phone of some incarnation, which contains all that we had, as well as the Web. Which means, where we had to play video games in the lounge and find answers in giant, antiquated things called attending physicians and books, you can look up fun facts on hyponatremia and instantly play Angry Birds, whether you’re on rounds, in the cafeteria or hiding in the call-room, pretending you didn’t hear ‘code blue.’
3. Eventually, you may decide the lab-coat isn’t worth it. Don’t be surprised. Your kids will eventually wear it for Halloween.
4. If you keep the lab coat, what with the extra space in your pockets, carry extra candy bars. Or protein bars, or whatever it is you crazy kids snack on these days.
5. Watch where you step. Trauma patients and cardiac arrests are exciting! But there’s almost always some body fluid on the floor when the shouting is over. Try not to get too covered in blood early in your call night. It’s sticky and gross.
6. You know so much. You don’t know anything. Keep those two ideas in constant tension. Odds are, your command of modern evidence-based medical research is extremely impressive. Eighteen years after residency, I can still leave you in the dust when it comes to making decisions and knowing who is sick and who isn’t.
7. See above. Learn, as quickly as you can, who is sick and who isn’t. Hopefully medical school helped; but don’t count on it. If you know this simple thing, you will know when to go for help, when to panic (or not) and what to tell your upper level residents and attending physicians on rounds. And you will become that greatest of commodities: useful.
8. Look professional, develop your own style. Be comfortable. My friend Sherri used to wear pearls on call, with her green scrubs. They always made her appear elegant, no matter how much pediatric vomit had been hurled her direction.
9. Patients can be frightening. But remember what they told you at camp, about bears, raccoons and snakes. ‘Don’t worry, they’re just as afraid of you.’ This is kind of true. Except patients really aren’t afraid to ask for pain medicine or call attorneys, whereas you are afraid to do anything since you can’t believe you know anything yet.
10. You may be more frightened of physicians than patients. But remember, the people assigned to train you are smart, capable and experienced. And they put their tentacles in their pants just like everyone else. Ask them questions, listen and watch. And remember what I said above: be useful. My surgery resident was fond of saying, ‘Help me, don’t hurt me!’
11. You will soon have a thing called a paycheck. It will have a stub that shows how much the government is taking from you. Do not be surprised. This happens to everyone. It’s just that you owe a lot more money than most people. Cheer up! Everyone expects you to be rich someday, so they can complain about the fact that your rich. (Whether you will be or not remains to be seen.) Remember that no matter how little or much you make, never tell a contractor or car-dealer you’re a physician. Tell them you work in customer satisfaction, or something nebulous like that.
12. Crazy people, even really crazy people, are sometimes terribly ill. Pay attention.
13. Ill people, really ill people, are sometimes very crazy. Pay attention.
14. Medicine is inexact. I promise you will make mistakes. Don’t live in fear, and don’t let error define you. No one in medicine, or law, is capable of perfection. Except for being perfectly insufferable, of course.
15. If you poke things that look like they are filled with blood or pus, they will explode into your face; if you tend to hold your mouth open when you focus, well you know what will happen.
16. Scalpels really are sharp. Pneumonia and HIV and TB and Hepatitis really are communicable. Psychotic patients really will try to choke you. Medicine is dangerous. Be careful out there!
17. Human beings are really frail, vulnerable and hurting. Be gentle and kind whenever possible.
18. Have fun! Don’t think of it as residency, think of it as a chance to spend most of your waking and many of your sleeping hours in a huge, cold-building where people are dying!
19. Everyone is proud of you.
20. Pay attention to what the nurses say. They aren’t always right. But for quite a while, they’ll be right more than you are.
21. Only three to seven years to go! Hang in there. Remember, it’s no different from Boot Camp. It just lasts much, much longer.
Edwin Leap is an emergency physician who blogs at edwinleap.com and is the author of The Practice Test.
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