As a fourth-year medical student, I love introducing myself to patients as the “extra eyes and ears of the team, so feel free to tell me anything you forgot or would like to address, even if you think it’s irrelevant or burdensome. I will be your advocate.”
As I establish rapport with them, the walls come down, and they often provide important information that helps my team provide the best care for them. I understand that being sick and lying in a hospital bed in the care of complete strangers is one of the most vulnerable moments in the lives of patients, especially when the caregivers may not understand the patient’s cultural beliefs or when there’s a communication barrier.
This is especially important for minority patients or those of lower socioeconomic status. Taking the extra time to explain the medical jargon of their diagnoses and their treatment plan and why such plan is necessary, and also addressing their quiet concerns helps fortify trust and may even expedite the recovery process.
As a Nigerian-American, who had the opportunity to be raised simultaneously in both cultures, I’ve seen some clinical encounters where an African immigrant had withheld certain information because they thought it might be impolite or may not be willing to follow certain recommended treatment regimen due to their private cultural or religious beliefs. Having knowledge of their cultural beliefs and mindset encouraged me to speak more with them privately about their hesitation and concerns, which has helped in many instances to encourage compliance with recommended therapies. This is an example of why racial and cultural diversity is severely needed in medicine. While there’s still more progress to be achieved on that frontier, I feel hopeful that things can only get better from where we are now.
A surgeon once asked: “Why did you pursue medicine?” I said it’s because I love the human story. While I had other viable career options, I sensed that medicine was a calling for me, and that sentiment was tested during my medical school career. Despite the loneliness, sleep-deprivation, tears and laughter, and adjustment to a completely different way of life as a non-traditional out-of-state student, I’m most happy when I’ve gone out of my way to do something that significantly impacted the treatment course of a patient, or by not letting them fall through the cracks of our healthcare system. This is why I’ve come to appreciate primary care, with a career goal of addressing health care disparities at the policy level.
Not all physicians choose medicine for altruistic reasons, and they have practical reasons for that, but I believe the struggle for those who do is the temptation to not become jaded by the bureaucratic and sometimes toxic culture of medicine. It’s difficult to maintain the empathy, compassion, and idealism most students start off with on their first day of medical school as they progress through their clinical education. As a friend of mine would say, “There’s no ICD-10 code for those traits anyway.”
It’s been a struggle for me too, but what keeps me going, and something I’ve had to frequently remind myself of, is that medicine puts me in a position to speak for those who may not otherwise have a voice. It’s a privilege that I sometimes forget I have when focusing on the routine of the work day. Medicine gives me a sense of humility when I realize there’s so much we still don’t know. We are most authentic at our weakest moments, and it is at these times that we learn life’s biggest lessons. I’ve learned many of life’s most profound lessons through the stories, struggles, and triumphs of my patients, and this makes a career in medicine a journey worth completing well.
Okechukwu Anochie is a medical student.
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