From medical student to patient, in a matter of minutes

As part of the second-year clinical skills course, each member of my class is required to complete two 8-hour emergency department (ED) shifts. I had my first ED shift last week, and when I walked in, I introduced myself as a second-year medical student who needed to practice IV placements, EKGs, and any other procedures that happened to come my way. Three hours later, when I walked out of the ED, staff knew me not as a medical student, but as a recently discharged patient, grasping paperwork with my official diagnosis: “syncope and collapse.”

It was 30 minutes into my ED shift, while I was watching a pelvic exam, when I began to feel a little dizzy. I’ve fainted twice before — once in high school after getting my blood drawn, and once when watching a C-section at a clinic in India — so I recognized the signs: feeling a little hot, starting to see black dots, slightly swaying. I tried to fight off the sensation by breathing slowly, but I could tell it wasn’t working. At the earliest possible opportunity, I turned to the attending in the room, saying, “Is it OK if I leave? I’m feeling lightheaded.”

I barely waited to hear her response before I bolted out of the room and found the closest stool to sit on. Bad call. The stool had no back to it, and next thing I knew, I was on the ground. When I opened my eyes, there were at least five  nurses around me, one whom matter-of-factly said, “Honey, you just became a patient.” Another nurse quietly slipped my hospital badge off my jacket, returning two minutes later with a medical bracelet that she fastened around my wrist.

My memory of those early moments is a little shaky, but I do remember saying over and over again, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” I felt awful that I had come to the ED to learn from the patients, physicians, and staff — without being a burden — but had ended up being another patient for whom they had to provide care. The nurses and attendings immediately normalized the situation, telling me repeatedly that this is a common occurrence in the ED and that many of them had had this happen to them as well. Their assurances made me feel so much better.

The efficiency of the events that followed totally impressed me. The nurse helping me to the bed did the fastest history on me I’ve ever heard, all while hooking me up to a BP cuff and a pulse oximeter. Did I have allergies? (Nope.) Did I  have diabetes? (Nope.) When was the last time I ate? (That morning). Any other medical conditions that I’m being treated for? (Nope.) Any family history of cardiac conditions? (Nope.)

The attending who was with me when I initially felt lightheaded came in at that point and asked, “Has this happened to you before?” and when I told her about the C-section, joked, “OB/GYN probably isn’t your favorite thing, huh?” She then laid out the plan for what would happen next: an EKG, a glucose stick, and a blood test, to check for cardiac abnormalities, low blood sugar, and anemia, respectively. Within 30 minutes, all three of these had been done, and I even got a bonus ultrasound thrown in by someone who was practicing recognizing cardiac pathology (not that I had any). Noticing my scrubs and med student badge, this person took the time to show me each ultrasound image, pointing out the various heart chambers, valves, and the location where my IVC entered my right atrium.

By 2 p.m., my tests were all back, everything was normal, and I was able to laugh about the entire situation: Somehow, I had come into the ED hoping to practice blood draws and EKGs but came out having them done to me instead. Just another day in the life of a medical student.

Hamsika Chandrasekar is a medical student who blogs at Scope, where this article originally appeared.

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