Nothing can cultivate humility like medicine

There was a morning where I felt like the smallest human being on earth. It was a morning spent in the OR, where it seemed like I could do nothing right. I placed the Foley incorrectly on my first attempt, and then ended up removing it incorrectly as well. I nonchalantly brushed past the robot we were using for the case, which was already draped and prepped, and whose sterility I came inches away from breaking. As my resident asked me one anatomy question after another, I found myself saying, “I don’t know” more times than was excusable. And later, when we went to meet our next patient, I once again faltered — remembering the details of our patient’s diagnosis and surgery, but blanking when my resident asked about our patient’s past medical and surgical history.

When I left the OR around noon to head to clinic, I felt dazed, my mind filled with remorse over the mistakes I had made and anxiety over the fact that there was a possibility that the same thing might happen all over again the following day.

Then something happened in clinic that made me forget all about the OR.

I met a young couple, coming in for their very first prenatal visit. They were excited to see their little one on ultrasound, their first glimpse at the life that would soon be a part of their lives. When we placed the ultrasound probe on the woman’s belly, a small shape popped into view. The to-be parents were so happy: “This is amazing to see,” the woman said.

But my physician preceptor was quiet. She moved the probe around a bit more, slight concern in her features. And after a few moments, she said, “I don’t see a heartbeat.”

The woman was far enough along in her pregnancy where a heartbeat should have been visible. And when I saw another patient later that afternoon in clinic, who was at the same stage in her pregnancy as our first patient, it was clear that the heartbeat should have been something immediately apparent — a strong flicker in the otherwise still ultrasound image.

It was heartbreaking to watch the parents’ expression shift from joy to sadness. And for me, it was a poignant reminder to keep things in perspective; my experience in the OR, though emotional at the moment, was one tiny, tiny, tiny drop in the Ocean of Bad Things that could bring someone grief.

Over the course of third year, I’ve seen individuals struggle with so much: a small child with multiple gunshot wounds, a young woman dealing with the stigma of having epilepsy, a woman with arthritis so advanced that her hands were essentially nonfunctional, a healthy man who had a sudden stroke and became wheelchair-bound. This is the small subset of the patient stories I have heard so far, and the stories that are to come.

There’s nothing quite like medicine to cultivate humility.

Hamsika Chandrasekar is a medical student who blogs at Scope.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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