When you are trapped in a locker room in only your underwear at 3 a.m., you realize how many things must have gone wrong for you to land in that spot. Within the first week of my clinical rotations, I managed to be bested by the scrub machine. It was a strong start, to say the least.
My name is Ed, and I am writing to you as a fourth-year medical student primed to graduate soon. What you may find in the coming years is that medical school can be incredibly rewarding and demanding all at the same time.
You will witness the beginning and end of life. You will meet incredible people, in both colleagues and patients, who will drive you to be the best version of yourself. You will learn more than you ever thought you could. You will also spend countless hours working on your craft, perhaps at the expense of spending less time with loved ones in pursuit of your goals and dreams.
However, you also may come to feel the pressures and scrutiny of medical education. You might feel like you are always being watched and assessed on your performance. You may feel like every interaction you have with a resident or attending will affect their evaluation of you. You may feel the need to be perfect. What I hope I can impress upon you in this letter is that despite these perceptions, you should not take yourself too seriously. Sometimes you need to mess up and learn to laugh about it rather than focusing on perceived perfection and image. I hope we may build a comfortable education environment that is filled with humility and learning. To help build this culture, I will continue the story I began before about my early morning, half-naked self.
My first clinical rotation was the OB/GYN night shift with labor and delivery. This was a fast-paced, awe-inspiring experience. I left the first C-section I had ever seen, drenched in sweat. I could not believe that I had just witnessed the birth of twins. Realizing that I was now sporting a new, damp look, I went back to the locker room to change my scrubs.
My scrub top was the biggest casualty of my sweat. I decided that I’d just switch out my shirt and keep the bottoms. I swiped my ID, opened the drawer, placed the used scrub top in the drawer labeled “Top,” and closed the lid. With hopeful eyes, I watched the scrub machine process the scrub top. Then …
As I stood there in just scrub bottoms, I paused and thought for a quick moment. I figured it must be because I needed to return a full set of scrubs to get a new set. I decided to take my scrub bottoms off and return them as well to complete the process. Then, at that point, I should get a new, dry set of scrubs.
So I thought.
I moved to replace the scrub bottoms. I victoriously swiped my ID, opened the drawer, and plopped the scrub bottoms in. With the same hopeful, naïve eyes, I watched the scrub machine process the scrub bottoms.
So here I am, at 3 a.m., practically naked in the OB/GYN locker room on the first week of rotations. I could not help but worry that even after all these years of school, I was outsmarted by a scrub machine. Luckily, I did have my cell phone and called the other student rotating with me. He quickly came to the locker room, where he found me sheepishly peeking my head from around the corner of the lockers. Surely two people in their 19th year of formal education could outwit a scrub machine. After workshopping the idea, we placed two towels in the scrub machine as decoys.
“Transaction complete. Please take your scrubs.”
These days, it is refreshing to think about my nighttime odyssey with the scrub machine. Things in medicine can be so serious. Throughout my clinical time thus far, I have entered the most intimate and sacred parts of some patients’ lives. Patient interactions can become incredibly critical and precious. All these moments put together can form what is a very serious day for a physician experiencing it firsthand. Compound these days into a whole career, and what you have ends up being a very serious profession. Yet, amongst the seriousness of it all, I find myself searching for small moments of lightheartedness, and I hope you will too.
So, next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed and stressed during your medical education, please do not take yourself too seriously. Hold yourself to a particular standard but not to perfection. It will be okay. Expect to make mistakes. Be present in the moment. Smile. Laugh.
And if anything, it could be worse.
You could be stuck in the hospital in nothing but your underwear.
Edward M. Delesky is a medical student.
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