I love working but truly detest taking exams. However, as life only gives you more of what you fear, I found myself responsible for my program’s weekly clinical grand rounds — an exercise in which I would present a real live patient and be judged by my program for my clinical acumen and physical exam skills. Passing would be a quiet victory; failing, on the other hand, would be a public humiliation.
My anxiety kicked in hard as the presentation drew closer. As I rehearsed and revised just before my moment of truth, I was stricken with a revelation: I hadn’t cut my fingernails.
Alas, my grooming had become another casualty of my daily workload and brewing burnout. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t have been a concern, but here, my long fingernails would make percussion during the physical exam almost impossible. I would end up scratching, scarring, and bruising the patient’s poor abdomen with my taps, earning a brutal shaming from my attendings in the process.
“Damn, I need a nail cutter! I will fail otherwise,” I said.
Cold beads of panicked sweat sprouted on my brow. At that moment, a general surgeon named Dr. S, seated in front of me in the lecture hall, turned to face me. “Give me your nails — I will bite them,” she deadpanned.
My reverie of impending doom broke: “Umm … what?!”
Placidly, she repeated. “We don’t have a nail cutter. Let me bite them off for you.”
A pregnant pause of consideration ended with an eruption of laughter, as the absurdity of the situation hit me. And just like that, my fear and anxiety dissipated, thanks to a well-timed dose of humor. I calmed down, and the presentation went smoothly — a testament to the power of a minor positive affirmation and the collegiality that so many of us residents depend on. I think back on this minor episode often when it feels like I’m just trying to keep my head above water.
And I keep my nails nice and trimmed now.
Natasha Khalid is a physician in Pakistan.
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