This summer I am conducting research in Bolivia. I am visiting 20+ hospitals in this region of Bolivia and having surgeons, nurses, hospital directions, anesthesiologists fill out a survey that will show the state of their hospital’s capacity to offer surgical care. As I introduce myself to the hospital directors, saying I’m a medical student working with the Ministry of Health, I find myself wondering what these people think of me. I don’t have my MD and I’ve never provided surgical care myself, who am I to come in and do research to help improve the care they provide?
As an unexpected bonus, my first week here I had the incredible opportunity to scrub into a surgery with one of the surgeons I am working with, something we don’t usually get to do until 3rd and 4th year of medical school. He allowed me to help with dabbing up blood, cauterizing, holding retractors, and cutting sutures, all things I am more than capable of doing. It was amazing, but once again I kept thinking to myself, how does he trust me to let me help with these things, I only just finished my first year of medical school!
During undergrad, pre-meds fill their time with research and shadowing in hopes of showing medical schools that we really are interested in pursuing a career in medicine. However, the problem with all those years of “exposing yourself to medicine” is you become accustomed to not being useful, to always having to stand back and observe rather than contribute. Whenever I shadowed, I made sure to introduce myself saying, “I’m just a pre-med,” as if to say don’t expect anything from me, I’ll just stand here and watch. Even with the research I was involved in at Vandy, I didn’t put much stock in my ideas, frequently relying on the direction of the physician I worked with.
But I’m in medical school now and I’m wondering when I will make the transition to believing I actually have something to contribute?
In the past year I have started to see patients about once every other week, learning how to take a history, do a physical exam, put everything in the electronic health records. And yet I still find myself telling people, “Oh I’m just a first year,” once again suggesting that you shouldn’t expect much from me. Whenever an attending physician asks me a question, I am eager to show off my knowledge, but I find comfort in the fact that if I am completely wrong he or she will correct my mistake and the patient will be fine.
My gut reaction is I will start believing in my ability to contribute third year of medical school – by then I will have started rotating through the hospital and will be a part of the patient’s care team. I will have completed boards and everything I need to know should be stored somewhere up in my brain, right? However I know when the time comes, I will still have this feeling that there are others better trained than me to be doing this or that. I will still find comfort in the hierarchy of medical training, in which there are plenty of people to catch my mistakes.
In a profession in which people with entrust us with their lives, there is an inherent pressure that a lot of other professions won’t experience. I think it is the seriousness of the work that causes me to time and time again to not trust myself. And even as I become more experienced and more confident, I know I will always be a little anxious when it comes to the more risky treatments or procedures. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, rather something that will push me to be the best physician I can be, striving to learn more and be at the front of the field.
But of course that’s a long way down the road, and for now I am content being “just a second year” :)