Not everyone has the pleasure, or should I say honor, of being a part of the miracle that is life; even fewer get to say that they witness and influence that miracle every day. As a medical student, I have been privy to a whole new world of opportunities that have opened my eyes to how fragile life truly is and how much of a difference one person can make to affect the life (or death) of another. What’s more, at some point in this journey, I became strikingly aware of the fact that at every level of medical training, there is an air of responsibility — a feeling mixed with both uneasiness and pride — that drives doctors, nurses and other medical professionals alike, to contribute what they can for the benefit of their patient’s health. At the height of this realization, I found myself wondering what I could contribute to those I serve with such little experience and knowledge.
It was the beginning of my third year of medical school — a time when I felt like I was being flung into the fire of wards with no more armor than the knowledge I had attained from my long-forgotten board review and an eagerness to learn that was often shadowed by my transparent fear of being wrong. I started my ward experience on internal medicine. It was a good idea in theory; after all, I figured I would remember the most amount of information based on the proximity to having just completed Step 1, and it would provide a solid foundation for every other rotation to follow. I was soon assigned my first patient, a complicated case of course, and like a good third-year student, I looked up “pertinent” information with my newly purchased UpToDate subscription, discussed my proposed plan of care with the intern, presented the differential on rounds to the attending, and went home (exhausted) to make time to study some more. Days turned into weeks for my patient, and I became increasingly frustrated that the team (that I) couldn’t figure out what was wrong. She was sick, partly from her own doing, but regardless of why she was there, she needed our help and expected (rightfully so) that we would be able to “fix her.”
About two weeks into the rotation, I pondered over the situation. I had seen many patients come and go from my care at that point, but the first patient was still in that same hospital bed I had found her in on my first day. I began visiting her more frequently in the afternoons, forgoing my usual time to do research. I didn’t know if we were going to be able to help her given her frail state and the fact that we had exhausted several likely tests two to three times over, but I did know that she didn’t have many visitors (none that I could recall, actually) so I figured she was probably lonely. At first, she met my kindness with bitterness and scorn, but day after day, my persistence slowly chipped away at her veil of anger to reveal a fearful but hopeful woman. I didn’t have much to offer in terms of medical knowledge because I didn’t fully understand half of what was going on myself. I couldn’t even explain to her why she couldn’t eat anything for the thousandth time because of some study she was going to get the next day (which I honestly couldn’t explain very well, either). But I sat and listened. I listened to her talk about her new grand baby and how she wanted to see her for her birthday; I listened to her cry as she admitted that she didn’t want to die and that she wasn’t ready to let go of all the things she had left to do; I listened to her talk about God and how He had sent me to her so she could find the strength to change her ways once she got discharged.
The day finally came when she was going to go home (three days before my four week rotation was to end). I went in to check on her as usual in preparation for morning rounds, and despite my sheer exhaustion from having been on call the night before, the joy on her face made me smile uncontrollably. We’d finally gotten her condition under control. We hadn’t really fixed her, but she was strong enough to leave, so it was time to say goodbye. Going into the rotation, I never would have guessed that one patient could teach me so much about how much I could contribute to her care, not by the disciplined application of new knowledge that I would learn, but by the unrestrained expression of the compassion that brought me to the field in the first place. As a student, it wasn’t my “job” care to care about the disease — to know everything about it or to have all the answers for how to treat it (although I ultimately did have to learn these things). It was my duty and responsibility to care about the patient — to comfort, listen, and be present for her at a time in her life when she was most vulnerable — so she would know her well-being meant something to someone, even if that someone was just a third-year medical student.