Some of my friends and family are really fascinated when I tell them I’m on my third-year surgery rotation. It is hard to convey how glamorous and inspiring it is, so I’ve written a short summary of a morning in the operating room:
7:30 a.m.: Wander around the operating room attempting to be helpful while patient is prepped. In actuality, be in everyone’s way as much as possible.
7:40: Scrub in to surgery. Fail to get your fingers in the fingerholes of the gloves.
7:42 – 7:52: Try to surreptitiously adjust your gloves without anyone noticing how stupid you look.
7:52 – 9:25: Try every possible position to get a view of the surgery around the other six people who are scrubbed in.
9:25: Give up on trying to see anything. Think about snacks.
9:48: Someone remembers you’re there, feels bad for you and hands you a tool! Something basic you can’t screw up!
9:52: Screw up anyway. Tool privileges revoked.
9:52 – 10:52: Think about snacks. Regret the coffee and garlic bagel you had for breakfast.
10:52: Accidentally brush the non-sterile pole with your sterile glove. Everyone rolls their eyes simultaneously; movement privileges revoked.
11:20: “Med student, what is this structure?” Attempt to visualize said structure in a two-by-two-centimeter hole from six feet away. Fail to visualize but make a wildly incorrect guess anyway — no matter how easy the question. Answer incorrectly until they give up on trying to teach you anything. Learning privileges revoked.
11:22 – 11:38: Think about snacks. Try not to think about how much your nose itches.
11:38: Note to self: “Rectum? Damn near killed ’em!” punchline does not go over well. Speaking privileges revoked.
11:40-12:40: Think about snacks.
12:42: Surgery complete! Attempt to help by putting diaper on patient. Fail to diaper. Diaper privileges revoked. Continue to be awkwardly in the way as much as possible until next surgery starts.
Looking back now as a senior resident, I can say the awkwardness is real. It’s hard. Being a “good medical student” involves being the perfect amount of present but unobtrusive, sharp but not a show-off, inquisitive but not questioning, caring but not too soft. This was never as obvious to me as it was during my surgery rotation. Though I’m sure for others, the awkwardness peaked elsewhere in their clinicals. At times, it is difficult, dehumanizing and lonely.
Each of us has a choice when we are no longer in the medical student role of how we respond to learners in the environment. You have the choice to turn the awkwardness around on the medical students whom you will supervise and make them suffer the same indignities. You can make them feel every bit as obtrusive and annoying as you were made to feel — you would not be alone in making them feel that way. Or, you can decide to recognize that theirs is not an easy role with a clear path to success. You can be supportive and appropriately kind. You can find reasons to notice their efforts and applaud those things that they do well. You can stand up for them when others look to be abusive. You can find the skills that need developing and give them the tools to be not just a good medical student, but a good doctor.
Barring all else, you can always warn them that coffee and a garlic bagel before surgery are a lethal combination.