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Limitless: The Physician as Human

My entire life’s work has culminated in medical school. Every volunteer organization, every organic molecule I drew, every sacrifice I made in the name of studying has led to being here in Washington, D.C. Why? To join the ranks of the people I held with the highest esteem: doctors. Doctors were the embodiment of justice, beneficence and non-maleficence in my mind: flawless humans. Something I overlooked in that belief was that doctors are, in fact, humans. Now, I am on my way to becoming a doctor. What does that mean for me? Am I now held to the same standard, held to being a flawless human? Two experiences during my first medical school block have rendered this internal debate real and necessary to survive and thrive in a medical career.

The mortality of doctors is no more evident than can be seen during one of the world’s largest genocides — The Holocaust. It may surprise most that the Nazi use of poison gas for the purpose of mass murder was not first implemented in concentration camps. Rather, in 1939, patients suffering from mental illness were “euthanized” in medical facilities around Germany — Nazis used this term to describe the systematic killing of Germans “unworthy of life.” Along with deciding who lived and who died near the door to the infamous “showers,” doctors also participated in unethical experimentation on twins, forced sterilizations, and performed live dissections. After World War II, twenty-three German physicians and scientists were tried at Nuremberg.

This knowledge was completely disillusioning. My initial thoughts defended the doctors. “Hitler must have forced them to do these horrible acts with brutality. A doctor would never act non-maleficently or unjustly.” As I sat with these thoughts, I soon realized that these doctors were acting in accordance with the times. One of the twenty-three doctors on trial may have believed their medical experiments were unethical and inhumane, however that same doctor may have had a family to feed and protect. Remembering eugenics was considered a valid scientific endeavor, even explored in the United States, this too makes their unjustifiable acts, well, understandable on some level. This experience, walking around the National Holocaust Museum, seeing the travesty and learning about the people involved, started the process of something I like to call “doctor disillusionment.” The process was furthered walking to school the next day.

For those of you unfamiliar with the area, the nation’s capital maintains a very large homeless population. Outside of the world-renowned George Washington Hospital, I will pass at least five homeless men and women desperate for some assistance. Moreover, I am not the only one passing the homeless. The number of white coats and scrubs that walk by these individuals daily is astronomical. If doctors were so flawless and beneficent, how could they walk by the homeless, helpless people, ignoring their existence? I cannot help but to make a connection with the doctors aiding in the Holocaust. They are humans. They have limits. I think the common thread is self-preservation.

This explains my process of “doctor disillusionment.” As the many doctors walk past the homeless, they are not acting non-maleficently; rather they are acting human. One cannot expect a doctor to drop their patients waiting in the hospital to take care of the many in need on the street. Why? Self-preservation. A family, dependents, patients, and payroll all figures into the real-world application of being a physician.

Already in my third month of medical school, I have experienced reaching my limits and knowing when I have extended myself over my personal capabilities. It is hard to fathom how much having patients depending on me will change my desire to stretch my personal limits. However, I will have to remember I too am just a human. As I embark on the next block, I plan to maintain a study schedule, with breaks for mindfulness and yoga, along with socializing. This does not make me a maleficent doctor in training; every hour of my day does not have to be devoted to studying to be considered benevolent. It is self-preservation. I will carry these memories, hearing the voices of Holocaust victims at the museum as well as the voice of the homeless lady outside Whole Foods everyday, to remind myself that doctors are people. I am a person, studying to be a doctor. No more. No less.

Alexa Lean (2 Posts)

Contributing Writer

George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences

Alexa is in the Class of 2018 at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences.