I know that being a third-year medical student is like being a transplanted kidney. One starts the day in one body. School is composed of lecture halls and written exams. However, the world has shifted by the end of the day, and shockingly, one’s old body is not present.
“If I don’t get a cigarette right now, I’m going to punch someone,” he said. “Okay, I understand. One second.”
I used to daydream that my first patient as a medical student would be a happy, reasonably healthy elderly woman.
Soon, we were jolted to attention by an overhead announcement, “Attention, code blue. Six south. Attention. Code blue. Six south.”
A half hour passed by before I heard the first trauma announcement overhead. The pager buzzed at the same time and somewhat startled me. I grabbed the on-call phone, pager and shears and quickly walked to the emergency department (ED).
I had just started my third year, and I had already witnessed six patients die. I had never been called a black cloud before this, but it immediately stuck and seemed fitting.
Through my patient’s same wants and needs, I saw my own thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, fears and my own desire to be liked, to be wanted, to be needed. I felt, for the first time in a very long time, a genuine human connection.
My mind kept returning to the patient I had encountered earlier that day. I experienced this subtle feeling that something important had happened. I became curious about the man and his story, but above all, I wondered what the most important part of that appointment had been.
Though the white coat’s role in medicine today is complex — to some, a respected symbol of medicine’s history; to others, a antiquated relic of a paternalistic past — few medical students or frontline residents would deny this emblematic item one major utility: a source of pockets.
“Are you okay, sweetie?” asks the intern as we start to ascend. She is completely unconscious, looking into nothingness. I start to feel the adrenaline. “I don’t think she’s okay,” remarks the intern.
While there is no way to choose our patients’ outcomes, we can certainly choose to be empathetic and compassionate regardless of their outcomes. Medicine without empathy and compassion is not medicine at all.
Empathy is a muscle you have to exercise just like any other. It is a choice. It’s something you have to study and practice and sometimes fail at and always try again.