One such opportunity was presented to me the same week of my acceptance phone call earlier this spring: a fully-funded trip to a previously unattended region of Nicaragua with a volunteer medical brigade. It was led by physicians from my institution looking to recruit our entering first-year medical school class to help lead the trip.
A frail elderly gentleman was wheeled in on a stretcher and left alone. His paper-thin skin lay gently across his delicate frame like fine linens. His mouth lay agape. His slightly yellowed sclera framed the piercing gray eyes cast upward at the harsh fluorescent lighting. He didn’t blink. He didn’t cry for help. He awaited the inevitable on a stretcher in a hallway of a fully occupied emergency department. I was confused and scared at the apparent lack of treatment he was receiving. There was no crash cart prepared for him. He wasn’t attached to telemetry. He didn’t have a nasal cannula. He lay in bed alone — in waiting.
Everyone at the nursing station turned silent and looked at the nurse who had delivered the news. I looked at her in disbelief, my brain struggling through a fog of confusion and surprise. I squinted at my patient list trying to remember who was the patient in 1152. Recognition finally hit and I remembered the little old lady that we saw during rounds two hours ago.
Being a premedical student is largely about the numbers — your MCAT score, your rank in your graduating college class, whether that subpar performance in organic chemistry will lethally impact your medical school application. If you’re anything like me, your time as a premed was spent encapsulated in a crippling and disorienting world of anxiety. I remember scanning Internet posts to confirm just how underwhelming my application to medical school was in comparison to those of other “more qualified” students. I read of students who had managed to four-oh all their prerequisite classes while achieving a perfect score on the MCAT and maintaining an enviable balance of humility and self-confidence, and I was understandably daunted.
Peering around the door anxiously, my eyes connected once again with the receptionist. After receiving her knowing glance, I once again stepped away from the doorway. It was 9:02 a.m. My first experience shadowing a pediatrician and interviewing patients was slated to begin promptly at 9 a.m.
It is a muggy Tuesday evening. Because it is Florida and it is summer, the impending storm promises no relief from the sticky heaviness that infuses the air. A line winds through the parking lot of a nondescript building. Children play under tents that offer paltry shade to their exhausted parents as they give their names to the students manning the reception table.
Seeing this dialog box, which pops up on the hospital’s electronic health record program, is never a surprise. On the list of patients whose charts I’m supposed to review for my summer research project, the deceased ones are highlighted in grey, setting them apart from the otherwise black-and-white list of names and medical record numbers.
I am doing flashcards almost rhythmically, rocking my chair and thoughts to the lilting cadence. It’s early, and my fingers are curled around a steaming coffee. I move forward through the deck, slotting each pearl of information into my brain as best I can, until one prompt jolts me from my focused state.
I was on a plane heading towards Santiago, the capital of the Dominican Republic. From there, I would take a two-hour bus ride to Mao Vallerde, where we would be working at for most of the week. I was going on a global health trip through Jose’s Hands, an organization that sponsors medical students interested in going on mission trips. For this particular trip, they had partnered with One to the Other Ministries, a Tulsa-based ministry that has been doing mission trips, both medical and non-medical, since 1986. This being my first global health trip, I had no idea what to expect other than the usual warnings of tropical diseases endemic to the area.
On your mat, you struggle to lie on a bent leg, intensifying your stretch as your hip pleads for you to give up. Many yoga instructors describe hip-openers as a “dynamic” pose because the body is in a constant flux between comfort and discomfort. But there is a moment when your internal struggle abruptly ends.
After passing out, I began to have doubts about my true level of squeamishness. So when it came time to go into the anatomy lab for the first time as a first-year medical student, I was nervous that I would be “that person” — the person who passes out the first time she walks into lab.
About eight months into my first year of medical school, an incoming student asked me how to prepare for the upcoming journey. I could relate to the panicked, excited feeling of the duty to prepare for medical school after an intense visit day. Yet, instead of defaulting to my ingrained answer of, “Nothing can prepare you for medical school,” which I believe was not in the student’s interest to hear, I carefully considered her question and answered, “It’s very important to be a good listener.”