How has Medical School Changed me?

There was an article from several weeks ago in Medscape Medstudents MedPlus (which incidentally wins the award for using “Med” the most in a title), that asked “How has Medical School Changed You?”. The article itself focused on how the student felt more comfortable in a hospital than the world outside, and how after an intense set of rotations he found it hard to relate to the things he did before he started school.The author is at a least a year or two ahead of me in school and so I don’t doubt I will feel that way once I am at that stage – but his answer to the question left me feeling unsatisfied. The truth of it is, that one will become accustomed to and comfortable in the place where they work regardless of whether they’re in medicine or not. That is to say, that what the author of the Medscape article was feeling was not unique to medicine but more so like adjusting to a new job. For me, the more that I thought about the question the more I wondered if medicine had significantly changed in ways that differed from other jobs I had had in the past.

The short answer is yes, so for those that like brief answers stop reading now – and I’ll see you next week (maybe). The hard part of the answer is defining exactly how I feel that I have changed. My girlfriend points out that I listen differently than I used to, and I’m more analytical in some ways. I personally think she’s just trying to get into my good books (thanks M!) with comments like that but I’m not complaining. I do think she’s right on some level as I have noticed a change in myself with respect to how I react in certain situations that are not necessarily related to the field of medicine. One particular example stands out in my mind.

Before I went into medicine I worked in lab where I would have to testify on the materials I analyzed. On one occasion, when I was finished testifying in a particularly disturbing case, the family of the victim came up to thank me for the work I had done. I found myself in a really difficult situation where I really didn’t know how to respond. Even though I could handle myself in court facing questions as an expert from the defense counsel, I could barely manage a few words for the family in front of me. I was confounded by their gratitude and their need to talk about my work. I see this as a danger of lab work sometimes – where one becomes stunted when dealing with real people but can relate beautifully to inanimate objects (I had a great relationship with my PCR machine in the lab but I’ll save that for another post). In the end I think I muttered a few words to the family and beat a hasty retreat.

Fast forward to a similar situation that arose while I was in medical school. During the first six months of school I was still required by the courts to testify on a number of cases as it takes an incredibly long time for criminal cases to make it through the legal system. In fact I just finished with the last of my cases this year – two years after I quit my original job!

In this case the circumstances were very similar and I found myself testifying on a brutal homicide of a youth from a small community. At one point during the testimony the courtroom was cleared and I found myself standing in the lobby surrounded by the entire small community that had come out to support the victim’s family. Imagine not only standing out in a crowd but also having that entire crowd stare at you with mild curiosity and you’ll have some sense of what it was like to be standing in that lobby. Now – although I didn’t have a lot of exposure to medicine at this point – I had had learned enough that I had some simple tools (or strategies) for engaging people in conversation and drawing out answers to difficult questions. Whereas previously I ran, I found myself this time talking to these people in an effort to relate to them and understand where they were coming from. Overall I was less uncomfortable dealing with the human side of the case.

This still leaves me with the question of what exactly has changed? There are three aspects I can take from my experience described above: I am no longer as uncomfortable in certain situations as I used to be; I am learning ways and strategies for overcoming the awkwardness associated with dealing with people in emotional places that need something from me; and I am less afraid to step out of my comfort zone to accomplish something. After writing this I realize that I have failed to really capture how medical school has changed me. The three aspects are characteristics that have changed but there is more to it and it’s hard to define. I see (in pieces) how medical school has started to change me but it’s something that I will have to add to and redefine as I continue through school and a question that will persist in my mind for some time to come.

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