As a third year medical student, I am as green as they come. As much as I feign familiarity in the hospitals, each day of every rotation brings a host of firsts: first time suturing, first natural delivery, first terminal patient, first 24-hour shift, first code blue. The novelty of these experiences is equal parts exhilarating and overwhelming. As future physicians, we have invested the better parts of our time, our money, and ourselves into learning how to provide health care for people who are at their most vulnerable. But do we learn to address the human condition?
The clinical vignettes with which we are tested in school paint pictures of patients as the sum of chief complaints, lab values, and diagnostic images. And yet, the reality of my clinical experience this year included the ventilated woman who was unable to express her grief to her family because her cancer eroded her vocal cords. Or the alcoholic woman who relapsed after ten years of sobriety because her husband passed away. Or the homeless diabetic man who consistently had his insulin stolen. These people are the experiences I cannot readily set aside, because for them, there is only so much healing to which we can contribute.
A wide-eyed student that still fumbles with her stethoscope, I often feel like I can do so little for my patients. I watch the attending physicians buzz in and out of the room with impressive authority in their orders, and the residents with their unending work and accumulating burn-out. But as I watch the patients, I realize that our most basic commonality is the desire to be understood; so sometimes the best I can offer is the ten minutes it takes to hear their story.
It’s easy to stand over the patient in our white coats and convey sympathy for their situation. Phrases like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and “We’ll do everything we can,” maintain the emotional boundaries most physicians require to do their job well. The real challenge lies in sitting on the edge of the bed, or taking a person’s hand, acknowledging how similar you really are, and truly hearing what it is they need from you.
I’m convinced that medical school shapes more than the type of doctor I will be, but the kind of person I am as well. I’m determined to be a person who chooses empathy. My encouragement to my colleagues is to press into those experiences that make you most uncomfortable, and reflect on these connections rather than compartmentalizing them. There is no goal in medicine worth achieving if it comes at the cost of our humanity.
Lauren Webb is a medical student.