I have become, in these last six months, a twisty little ouroboros. I eat my tail because it’s all I know, and I savor my pain and confusion. I am always full and always empty and a little twitchy from all the coffee. We are one of the few medical schools in the country to push ahead early with in-person rotations during the pandemic.
The hallmark of the third year is in-person exposure. It is a rite of passage to stumble through the six core clerkships: internal medicine, psychiatry, OB/GYN, surgery, pediatrics and family medicine. Are you even a physician if you’ve never been yelled at by the scrub tech on your first day in the OR? Did you even graduate if you’ve never written a SOAP note? Stayed up late to study for your shelf exam after coming home at 8 p.m.? Cried in the car after 12 hours of OB/GYN? The coolness of the pause right before an attending rips into your assessment and plan can never be conveyed by the written word. It, like everything in these last few months, must be tasted to be understood.
I’m not the same person I was when I opened my acceptance letter in 2018. I’m not the same person I was in March, in May, when I set foot in the ICU with my internal medicine attending’s back before me — and in May still, when I drove over an hour to hold my “White Coats for Black Lives” sign high. When I screamed into the microphone, “WE ARE WITH YOU.” When my classmates and I knelt. When my hands shook because I had no more tears to cry.
Are you even a third-year if you don’t have fourteen spent masks on the passenger side floor of your car? The eczema along my jawline might scar. I cannot prevent myself from sweating on a rotation and the material is thirsty for it. We play with masks and shields but they cut and leach sweat and remind us we are still here. We thrill at the scandalous period during lunch when we take them off to eat. I spent days not knowing what my team members’ lips looked like, but we certainly all had acne.
“I love having students,” one of my attendings told me. Then, “I get lonely.” We both laughed because it was the truth.
Medical students, the savvy ones, cannot call themselves front-line workers. At our worst, we hover around the edges of a specialty’s team, hopeful, clumsy in our newness. My class is fortunate that the limited number of community physicians willing to take students have small teams, if teams at all. We see everything. I see everything.
My class grows stronger, and it is painful. Many of us haven’t been raised to understand how to grow, and all we can do is accept it with grace. I’ve become kinder, which surprises me because my heart feels like a peppercorn.
So I will continue to eat my own tail and study.