Medical school is a constant, never-ending cycle between success and failure — sometimes one occurring within moments of the other. To be a medical student is to fail. We fail at the small things: working out three times a week, being on time for a friend’s birthday dinner, working on the research that has been on our desk for months. We also fail at the big things like exams, practical skills, asking for help when we most need it and sometimes letting ourselves sulk for too long.
The second week of my first year of medical school, myself and several other students were at the hospital for our Introduction to Clinical Medicine class. We were conducting the first patient interviews of our lives. Two out of the six students in our group would interview one patient each week and then receive feedback from our fourth-year mentors. As you probably guessed, I was terrified. I’m going to make a fool of myself, I thought. It was funny and maybe even a little bit hypocritical, how early clinical exposure was one of the things that had attracted me to Boston University School of Medicine, but yet here I was in my oversized, ill-fitting white coat crossing my fingers and toes every week hoping that it wouldn’t be my turn. Somehow, I managed to be the second to last student to interview a patient, which had turned into a personal victory just by itself. After watching four of my groupmates interview their patients, I had taken mental notes from the feedback they received and thought I was as ready as I would ever be. I knew that whatever was to happen inside that patient room would not have any consequence, this was just for practice, it was just a time-to-start-feeling-like-a-doctor kind of thing. Yet, as soon as it was my turn, I could feel myself just shaking. Just do it, Daniella, it will be fine, I said to myself as I walked in, introduced myself and my group and started the interview:
“Can you tell me what brought you to the hospital?”
The patient mentioned an exacerbation of some disease I had never heard about before.
“Okay, um, did you have any pain?”
The patient points to her chest. Yes! Great! At least I know the heart is located in the chest. She took some medicine that I don’t even know how to spell, so I just scribble something to look engaged.
“Can … you duuhhrs…scribe the p-pain?”
Oh no. Oh no. The room is spinning. My head is foggy. My mouth is dry.
“E-excuse me. I-I’ll be right back.”
I held on to the wall and barely made it outside of the patient room before I fell to the ground. Yes, I, the proverbial medical student my parents were so proud of, had fainted on my first patient interview. A nurse walked towards me and asked if I was okay or needed some water and then just yawned and went on with her day. Clearly, I was not the first student to faint. Then, our fourth-year mentors and the rest of my group came out and started saying how it was okay to be nervous and that I would do better the next time. Yeah right, just sign me up for pathology right now, I thought while I tried my hardest to smile and act as if everything was okay. I had managed to convince myself on the first day that I was one of those students that was just “bad with patients.”
I knew there was no way I could improve other than interviewing more patients. Lucky for me, the chance came during the second semester of first year, when we were all sent to work side by side with a physician once a week. Every week, Dr. B gave me a list of patients to interview and I would meet her later to present her the patients and do a physical exam. Gulp. It wasn’t always great and it wasn’t always pretty, but it was always a little bit better and that was good enough for me. It took me several weeks to snap out of it and find that sweet spot where I was confident with my skills, but I did it.
If I learned anything from my first two years of medical school, it’s that failing and being mediocre is a bit of a skill itself. It’s almost as if you need to practice failing. You are going to fail many, many times at many, many things. Presenting your first patient? That’s a tough one. Your first write-up? Likely to be a disaster. Writing your first abstract? Brace yourself for draft #15. Contrary to the way most of us in medicine have lived our lives, the point is not to go through medical school without failing. It is okay to fail and it is okay to be mediocre when you try something new for the first time. The point is to make failure part of your medical student experience, so that eventually, you will learn enough from it that you will do it right when it matters. It is okay to have fear as long as it does not paralyze you, just as it is okay to fail as long as it doesn’t mean you give up. Give yourself a little bit of an opportunity to fail. Trust me, just start, just do it. You’ll be mediocre for a while, but it will not be forever.