I was volunteering at one of the free clinics associated with my medical school last weekend, and while teaching a medical student how to sew a cut, he queried, “That is an interesting technique, who taught you how to suture? Are you a surgeon?”
“I am actually a radiologist,” I replied. “To answer your first question, I was actually taught this by an obstetrician during my third year of medical school.”
Puzzled, the student responded, “I can’t say that I would ever expect to see a radiologist volunteering here. May I ask how you came to be one of our preceptors?”
“I suppose in a roundabout way, you could say that I was inspired by the same obstetrician.”
I think every doctor remembers what it was like to be a student in the third year of medical school. Fresh out of 2 years in the classroom and library, the third year is the time of the core rotations in which you find out what kind of doctor you are going to be for the rest of your life. For the highly impressionable student, the people above you — interns, residents, and attendings — seem like high clergy while to them, the student is often a temporary visitor in a sea of rotating faces encountered over the course of a long academic year. Being a forgettable face is often preferred, as being forgettable typically means that you didn’t make an error bad enough to be remembered for it.
My obstetrics clerkship was far from forgettable. While it is not uncommon for residents to groan or roll their eyes at the sight of a new medical student, the resident assigned to the task of teaching me how to catch babies on my first day, Dr. S., was far from annoyed. Instead, the prospect of a new learner engendered an enthusiastic smile that is uncommon at five in the morning.
Most of what you need to know to be a good physician is not taught in textbooks. The art of treating the whole patient comes with bedside manner, empathy, and actually caring for the individual, not just his or her medical condition. It is with this that I still recall — many years later — that Dr. S. was the epitome of what it means to be a good doctor. Despite long work hours, a demanding schedule of patients, and adjusting to a new hospital herself, she greeted every patient with a smile. Her technical skills easily exceeded that of surgeons at a similar level of training, but these are not the traits that make me remember her abilities. What stands out to me most is that every patient (as well as every student) deserved the same level of respect as a human first. The smile that she had when she worked was not a manufactured one. In the operating room, unlike so many other residents, she made sure that I played an active role and got the most from my education (which again, is not as common as it should be). As has been recounted many times, “doctor” comes from a Latin word meaning teacher, and she was definitely both.
As the end of my third year of medical school approached, I bumped into Dr. S. in the cafeteria. She asked me what specialty I had decided on. I told her that I was considering radiology, and the grin I was met with told me that I had earned the approval I was for some reason seeking. “I guess teaching me how to do an ultrasound must have had an effect,” I reasoned. “Best of luck to you, Dr. S.”
“Call me by my first name, Cory, and don’t be a stranger.”
As is typically the case in medical school, we would not cross paths again. Medical education, like life, is a series of seemingly random encounters, each of which teaches you a little bit about yourself and the world around you. The best physicians learn something every day, whether it be from a colleague, another specialist, or a patient. Being a trainee affords you the ability to look past the financial side of medicine and really focus on each patient, and being a radiologist now affords me the time to do things like volunteer at clinics for indigent patients.
On those weekends that do find me supervising medical students in these settings, I do hope that I can impart the same sort of impression on my students as I benefited from.
As I left the clinic last weekend, the medical student shook my hand before leaving and said, “Thanks, Dr. Pfeifer. You’re an awesome teacher, and I hope you come back!”
“Call me Cory,” I responded as I grinned. Like my teacher before me, my smile didn’t have to be manufactured either.
Cory Michael is a radiologist.