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Coffee and Chaos: Using Self-Centered Moments To Become A Better Doctor

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. Instead, I stood nervously against the door frame in my new, crisp white jacket awaiting the arrival of the doctor, questioning if I had mistaken the meeting time or place. As a new medical student, I was anxious about my interaction with the doctor. Not only was this taking away from my study schedule, a million other worries flooded my mind: Was I dressed professionally enough? Could I make a good impression? Would the patients even want to talk to me? My mind was buzzing with anxiety and I was anxious to get on with the day. I had a long to-do list, after all, and there wasn’t a moment to waste.

Five minutes later, Dr. M came through the door with an ever-broadening smile on his face. “I’m so sorry,” he began, fumbling with his coffee. “Today has already been quite a morning.” It was a day reserved solely for sick visits in the office and since he was the only doctor working, a hefty stack of patient reports was already accumulating on his desk, reports that were surely accompanied by irritated faces in the waiting room.

So, we began making up for lost time, slipping seamlessly into a flow of interviewing patients without pausing. Before long, noon had arrived and it was nearing the end of my time with Dr. M. We walked back to the attendings’ room in order to recap the morning. However, the sharp chirp of Dr. M’s cellphone soon interrupted us. Apologizing, he reached into his pocket and automatically unlocked his phone. As I began to leave, in an effort to give him some privacy, he motioned for me to sit down. He continued his short conversation on the phone, discussing his weekend with his family and friends.

After a few more moments talking to his family, Dr. M put down his phone and turned to me. “So, how are you liking Philadelphia?” My eyes quickly shifted as a nurse lay yet another patient report on his desk. His eyes, however, never moved. “I love Philadelphia, but I am still getting used to the mannerisms of the city,” I said and again began to get up so that Dr. M could see more patients. “What do you mean?” he replied, leaning back in his chair. Surprised, I continued to explain how the exchange of pleasantries in a coffee shop just wasn’t the same in the city as in my rural hometown. Nodding, he agreed that the adjustment could take some time and suggested a wonderful coffee shop in his neighborhood, motioning to the untouched coffee on his desk.

It was in this moment that I realized the importance of these seemingly trivial interactions. This whole time, I was worried about getting things done and being fast enough for both Dr. M and for myself. I didn’t want to hold up his day by being slow, and I was anxious to get on to other school tasks I needed to complete. I thought that talking would be a brief, cordial interaction. The conversation would be just long enough to be polite, but we were both busy people. However, the superficiality that I was expecting vanished in an instant. Instead, I felt that I was truly heard, and it made me reflect on myself for a moment. Instead of focusing on the hectic nature of the day, or what was coming next, I was present in that conversation. Spanning the breadth of a few minutes, Dr. M had reconnected with his family, gathered himself from a trying morning, and completely changed my outlook on taking a small break in the day. So far in my education, I had striven to make every minute filled with work, often feeling guilty for taking even a small break. Without explicitly stating it, he showed me just how crucial taking even a couple of minutes to focus on one’s self can be.

Too often in our medical journey we are reminded of our balancing act. We must maintain a multitude of responsibilities, including a responsibility to ourselves. Within a day, we must study our lectures, read important papers and practice for boards. These tasks don’t include finding the time for any extracurricular activities or interests. We are also constantly told to take that hour and go to the gym or take that night off to see a movie with our loved ones. Yet, while we are reminded to schedule in big breaks, too little emphasis is placed on the small moments of self-care throughout the day. While taking a moment to catch up with a friend or collect one’s thoughts may seem trivial, it is in fact a crucial part of practicing medicine.

Too often our coffees go untouched on our desks; our phones go unanswered. In a society that places continuous pressure on doctors to perform more efficiently, we often forget that doctors can take a moment, sit back and just have a conversation. But this distinct human desire is the foundation of what makes a great doctor. When we take a moment to relax, we can focus on listening to the patient, often picking up subtle clues that would otherwise be missed. Throughout the day, Dr. M constantly noticed when a mother was nervous, or a child was excited about something, even when they did not openly mention their feelings. The ability to relate to another human being is what allows doctors to impact the lives of others. However, we sometimes get lost in the hustle of the day, even as a student, and forget to really listen to people. Dr. M showed me that practicing this skill, the art of taking a self-centered moment to relax and connect with another person, is an essential practice for the benefit of both the patient and, especially, us.

On an early Saturday morning a few weeks after meeting Dr. M, I scrambled to get ready for the day. Having been up late and overslept my alarm, I flew around my apartment trying to get ready as efficiently as possible. After throwing on an old sweatshirt and grabbing my bag full of books, I walked out of my building and subsequently dropped everything I carried, items scattering across the sidewalk. Picking up my belongings, I headed to the coffee shop next door, which was already bustling in the mid-morning rush. I managed to bump into three people while in line, each that responded with a “humph” when I tried to apologize. After 10 minutes had passed, I was finally next in line to order my coffee. As I stepped up to the counter and said good morning to the cashier, she continued to stare, back at me. Recalling what I had learned from Dr. M, I turned around and walked out into the hustle of the street. I began walking in the opposite direction, searching for my moment of peace, the chance to gather myself, in what was “quite a morning,” and sought out a friendlier coffee shop.

Rebecca Russell Rebecca Russell (2 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University

Rebecca is a student in the Class of 2019 at Sidney Kimmel Medical College.