During the third year of medical school, you collect many new numbers and contacts, and your phone’s contact list becomes filled with labels like “Bridgit OB resident,” “Bill RED medicine” and “Med Clinic Downtown.” The list grows day after day as you collect the phone numbers of clinics, social workers, residents, schedulers and physicians. You hoard these numbers in case you need them.
Each number carries with it memories and, inevitably, some of them hold more meaning than others. Though sometimes you feel like just another face in the long line of medical students that residents and attendings see every year, you sometimes feel genuinely useful or like you connected with these people. Either way, each of these people shaped who you will become as a doctor. They are memories and experiences that made your third year what it was: learning, facing mortality and growing up.
As cliché as it may sound, the small moments usually affect us more in the long run than the grand gestures or feelings of intense consternation. For me, one such moment occurred during my surgery clerkship. I had been invited to the General Surgery Journal Club. In the sweltering heat of a southern summer, I dressed as crisply as possible because I had no idea what to expect. While I embraced this opportunity, I had only been invited because another medical student had fallen ill.
I arrived an hour early, afraid to be late for the meeting. Two other male medical students arrived shortly after. They were both sons of different surgeons in the community and seemed to know everyone at the meeting. The residents and attending physicians slowly trickled in, and the other two students greeted them accordingly as I stood there attempting introductions.
Being the daughter of a railroad conductor and actuary, I felt so out of place. Everyone sat down to order, and a female intern sat down next to me at the large banquet table. I was poring over the menu, which was filled with items I had never heard of before. The two other medical students were on my opposite side. Even though they were my colleagues, I felt too embarrassed to ask them what prosciutto was. In hindsight, I had heard of it, so I shouldn’t have been so nervous. However, I was frozen with anxiety in the moment. I didn’t want to order something and then not eat most of it. What kind of impression would that have made?
I noticed that the server was beginning to make her way around the table to take orders. I must have looked petrified as I frantically wondered what to do.
After a few moments, I bashfully asked the female resident next to me, “What is prosciutto?”
She leaned over and whispered, “It’s fancy bacon; you’ll like it.”
After all of these years, I still remember this moment and still look up to that person. The rest of the night was much less memorable. I eventually asked her how intern year was, and she said that it wasn’t as terrible as everyone said it would be. She showed me pictures of her dog, baked goods and cool surgeries. Although it was arguably a tiny moment in the course of a life or even an evening, it put me at ease and convinced me that maybe I did belong at that table. After all, she was the kind of doctor I want to be.
While there are phone numbers for people you wish to emulate, there are also numbers for attendings and residents whom you don’t want to be. You might eventually delete these numbers because they remind you of frustrating, demoralizing or even appalling times. However, I sometimes keep these numbers as a reminder of what I don’t want to be. I don’t want to tell horror stories here; that is not my goal. I prefer to recount the beautiful moments of the hospital today: the girl who went home three days after her heart transplant, the candy off the secretary’s desk, the long stories with patients, the laughs shared with classmates and residents.
Many small, almost insignificant moments, during medical school led me to surgery, and many of these moments were brief pockets of joy in the sometimes overwhelming drawl of medical school. I think of the third-year medical student who took the time during my first year to show me how to scrub. She gave me her number and told me to text her if I ever had questions about the surgery clerkship or medical school in general. I think of the surgeon who — instead of yelling at me — taught me as we discussed our favorite Adele songs in the operating room.
These moments have stuck with me, serving as reminders of what I want my future to be. I want to laugh with others. I want to support others. I want to be the kind of doctor who tells the clearly distressed student what prosciutto is.