In a profession where we are trained to fight death around any corner, any day, students need to not only understand how to handle death in a medical setting but also how to cope with the weight we bring upon ourselves in end-of-life situations. No matter our past experiences, no matter our clinical training or how academically prepared we think we may be, it can be traumatic to feel the burden of responsibility for the loss of a life.
It was a Saturday morning and there were close to fifty volunteers who gathered at a homeless shelter in Riverside, CA ready to give out hygiene care packages and offer free showers, haircuts, clothes, and food. Eager medical students and physician assistants provided free health care screening and visits. Efforts like these are fairly common — nothing groundbreaking.
As stressed medical students looking for an eventful destination to spend our spring break, my friend and I chose to take a trip to America’s Big Apple, New York City. On a sunny day in NYC, I remember enjoying our morning cups of coffee and walking into a subway station when, suddenly, an older man shouted at us, “Take your corona and get out of my country!”
This piece is focused on the applications of empathy and compassion in decision-making. How can we distinguish between them? In its simplest form, empathy deals with feelings while compassion deals with understanding.
A picture is worth 1,000 words, and the world today is full of symbols. Emojis share paragraphs of information. Logos inform us about what a company represents or does. Shapes and colors share messages of safety or caution on the road. Symbols are everywhere and understanding them brings deeper understanding to the world around us. Medicine is a field of precision, and that is precisely why it is so strange that such confusion exists as to which symbol should represent it.
Now, I am a fourth-year medical student standing at the foot of a tall ladder. The hierarchy of medicine requires that I follow some unwritten rules in order to climb. Throughout my training, I have gotten the sense that one of those rules is: avoid trouble, good or bad. Of course, now, doctors are beginning to find their voices through movements like White Coats for Black Lives. But as a young trainee, I sometimes feel the sentiment directed at James in 2018: shut up and doctor.
A few years ago, I found CrossFit. Since then, I have spent a large share of my free time training and improving my health and fitness. As with any sport, there was a large learning curve. However, as I trained, my mind and body adapted. I made strides both athletically and mentally that I never thought were possible. I never imagined that this preparation and development would translate to a seemingly opposing task: medical school.
Anxiety defined me more when I denied its existence than it does now that I’ve faced it head-on. Maybe the anxiety helped me get to where I was, but it was a burden I didn’t have to bear — especially not alone. Even knowing how important mental health is as a future physician, it embarrassed me to admit that I might need a prescription to help me cope with my fears and anxieties.
Rather than ask elderly poll workers to risk their health on Election Day, medical professionals and students can volunteer to work at polling locations. Health care professionals and students tend to be in a lower-risk population and are also well-versed in the public health practices critical to safely conducting an election during the pandemic.
How could I study for my next exam instead of focusing my energy on the crisis around me? Was I selfish for still worrying about doing well in school while others died alone in the hospital on a ventilator? In these moments, I found respite in “Learning in War-Time,” a sermon delivered by C.S. Lewis to the students of Oxford in 1939 just as World War II began. In this timely sermon, Lewis addressed the chief concern on students’ minds: Why continue to study philosophy or science “when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance?”
I have learned that patients seek health care services at free clinics for a myriad of reasons and some are atypical. There were specific populations I expected to see: the uninsured, underinsured, undocumented, and those without access to transportation. Yet there were other populations I was more surprised to see, namely patients who had insurance but preferred their experiences at free clinics.
I am worried that these stories of heroism are harming the very people they celebrate. By creating an ideal “health care worker” as an endlessly altruistic individual, it stigmatizes the medical workers who refuse to take on these risks — even though there are many legitimate reasons not to.