Several weeks ago, after hearing that I plan to begin medical school this August, someone asked me if I still would have chosen to become a physician had I known about COVID-19.
When I submitted my AMCAS application one year ago, I never imagined that I would be waiting in quarantine, wondering whether I will have a white coat ceremony. It never crossed my mind that I would be reading articles, social media posts, essays, and other commentary written by physicians on the front lines and wondering whether I, too, might also face their current challenges, fears, and dilemmas.
Will I experience a tension between protecting my family’s health and caring for my patients, or be forced to ration life-saving medical care? Will I face PPE shortages or the mental health challenges which many physicians are experiencing as they wrestle with devastating levels of suffering? Will I be forced to tell someone that they cannot visit their spouse of fifty years who is dying in an isolation unit, or worry that the institutions and structures surrounding medicine failed me by preparing inadequately for a pandemic?
COVID-19 has certainly exposed many areas of America’s health care, medical education, and political systems that desperately demand reform. I have long known that medicine is not perfect, but the pandemic has taught me another lesson, and one which I am grateful to have learned so early on in my journey to become a physician: that medicine is not a guarantee of invulnerability.
Medicine is not a guarantee of invulnerability for my patients. While I wish to believe that all diseases will be eradicated and all suffering will be eliminated, every one of my patients will die one day. Our efforts to re-evaluate prudently our nation’s current approaches to caring for patients, protecting the vulnerable, and promoting health are valuable, yet the reality of human frailty persists. It is something I hope never to forget, and not because it will cause me to care less for them, but instead to care well for them: life is fleeting, and short, and so valuable.
More importantly, this crisis is teaching me that medicine is not a guarantee of my own invulnerability. Nothing can make my profession easy, or without suffering and disappointment. Medicine will remind me that I am human: I will struggle under the burden of my patients’ grief and pain, especially when I cannot ease it. Medicine will remind me that I am not autonomous: I can only heal insofar as I am part of larger teams and organizations, and thus I need the collaboration and assistance of others to help others flourish, and to flourish myself. Medicine will remind me that my life does not belong to me but to those whom I have professed to serve: I cannot devote myself to the healing profession without some loss to myself.
Would I choose medicine again? Medicine will always bring frustrations and disappointments, but there are few professions that offer such intimate, privileged opportunities to serve others. Medicine will inevitably cause me to experience sacrifice, loss, and death, and likely on a scale that I cannot yet comprehend, but I hope that it will also bring the opportunity to journey with someone through the most difficult moments of their life. Medicine will remind me that I cannot cure everyone, but it will allow me to care for them until the very end. Medicine will be devastating when I realize that I am not an invincible, invulnerable physician, but it will teach me that I share in my patients’ vulnerability and dependency, and that will be one of the most valuable lessons of all.
It is difficult to predict what the next eight years of my training, or the many years after that, will bring. Likely, it will bring many things, but above all, I hope it will bring a unique kind of joy: the joy of offering another person the dignity and recognition of being cared for in all their weakness, frailty, majesty, and strength. Medicine is a human profession, and that will make it hard, but I hope that, because it is human, it will also be worth choosing each day.
Sarah Becker is a medical student.
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