I badged myself back to the operating room and hiked up my ill-fitting scrubs. The bouffant was twice the size of my head. It made me feel like a child playing dress-up in adult clothes. As I walked to the OR, I rehearsed what I would say in my head. No matter how many surgeries I watched, I could never get over my pre-case jitters. What if I break the sterile field? What if I drop the retractor? As I walked in, the team bustled around, setting up the room. Before I could introduce myself, the circulating nurse asked, “Are you a resident?”
“Oh, no,” I replied. “I’m just the medical student.” Just the medical student.
The third year of medical school is a rite of passage. After so many hours in the classroom, students are set free into the world of health care. It’s exciting yet terrifying. Stay out of the way, we’re told. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t touch anything. We get lost in the hospital. We fetch the wrong supplies. We feel out of place. We question whether the work that we’re doing is meaningful. We don’t know anything; we’re just medical students.
One afternoon in clinic, I was following my resident as we made our way through the list of patients to see. One visit, in particular, was taking longer than expected. The patient had several social problems that complicated her treatment plan and left her feeling despondent. As we concluded the appointment, the patient began to put back on her socks and shoes. I watched as she struggled – her age combined with severe swelling of her legs made it difficult to pull up the socks. Finally, I thought, something I can help with as I grabbed some gloves and kneeled on the floor. I asked the patient if I could help her adjust her socks and shoes. She paused, studied me, and said, “You are the first person to offer to help me with anything in a very long time.”
Fast forward six months. I’m still in my third year, but by now, I have a little more experience under my belt. I spend my days at the out-patient clinic, bobbing in and out of patient rooms and crafting follow-up plans. One morning, a patient came to see us for a routine visit. Knowing this would include a diabetic foot exam, I asked the patient to remove his boots. “Do I have to?” he said. After explaining the importance of the exam, he agreed, begrudgingly. “You’re gonna have to help me get them back on,” he said to me.
At the end of the visit, I offered to stay behind as my attending moved on to the next patient. I once again grabbed some gloves and kneeled on the floor. The patient laughed at my mediocre attempt at putting on his socks, twisted and backward. He needed to get home, as his dog was waiting for him. He showed me pictures of the dog and his children who gifted it to him. We talked about our families, how we both hoped to visit them soon. I started the visit pre-occupied with my to-do list, but afterward, we both left with a smile.
As I reflect on my third year of medical school, I’m reminded of many people’s advice: Keep an open mind. While this is usually said in regards to picking a specialty, I’ve come to understand it in a different way. And no, this is not me saying that I should’ve gone into podiatry. This year has taught me that you never know what a patient encounter will bring. A simple gesture could mean the world to someone. What seems like a mundane visit could be the perfect chance to connect with a patient. Look for those opportunities. Because while it may not always feel like it, medical students can make a difference in our patients’ lives. So, take your time. Ask the right questions. Perform a thorough physical exam. But, before you leave the room, don’t forget about their socks and shoes.
Patient details have been changed.
Louisa Weindruch is a medical student.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com