Aspiring physicians enter the profession with an idealism that blinds us to the fact that our field exists as a fleeting reaction to the inevitability of suffering.
Pediatric cardiologists exist to mend little broken hearts; oncologists exist to thwart the colonialism of cancer; and even preventive care specialists exist in opposition to abstractions of demise. While I always wish for good outcomes, looking back on my medical school experience, my greatest opportunities for learning and personal growth were born out of sadness, tragedy, and loss.
As a student, I learned how to exist in spaces where there is great potential for pain. As a writer, I’ve spent a lot of time dwelling in these moments, which feels an awful lot like picking at a scab — but it’s this reflection that has allowed me to move closer to the truths about human experience that called me to medicine all those years ago.
One of my inspirations was an article I read during high school, about an extraordinary doctor-patient relationship. Mr. M was a 36-year-old factory worker and recent immigrant from Congo who was dying of cancer. He confided in his doctor that he could not afford to have his body flown home because he’d sent his relatives all the money he had earned in America. Moved, the doctor promised to help. After Mr. M died, she raised the funds to send his body back to Africa.
Even though she couldn’t help him live longer, I believe she gave him the comfort of knowing he wasn’t alone in his final days.
As I’ve progressed through my journey as a physician in training, I’ve kept this story in the back of my mind. It not only provided me with a role model to emulate, but also opened my eyes to the influential power of narratives and storytelling. This patient’s story spurred his doctor to action, and, in turn, the story of their relationship inspired me to pursue a career in medicine. In this constellation, I had a sense of what was real and what was important. And I wanted to be part of that.
As Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has written, “… understanding who you are and who you are becoming through your experiences is the single most important part of medical training and practice.” Before medical school I was a person who believed in the best in others. This admittedly set me up for disappointment, but as my naivete wanes, I’ve become a doctor who is unafraid to ask for the best for my patients, especially for those who have inherited a legacy of disadvantage, stigma, and disenfranchisement.
The grind of medical education can cause trainees to lose sight of our purpose. As I progress in my training, I hope to maintain my integrity and become a physician who advocates for social justice both in practice and in my writing.
As a resident physician in psychiatry, I will spend the next four years learning how to exist as the captain of a ship that perpetually sails murky waters, with the humility of knowing my mastery of the art and science of medicine will never be complete.
Our patients are not questions to be answered, or problems to be solved, but rather people who have given us the privilege to stand with them and offer strength and support, in the form of knowledge, advice, and compassion in times of crisis. One study described the patient experience this way: “A feeling of connectedness with the doctor, of being deeply heard and understood, reduces this feeling of isolation and despair. This feeling is the very heart of healing.”
Becoming a doctor has, by far, been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the physicians that have come before me say I haven’t seen anything yet.
I’m starting residency with an intimate understanding of medicine’s imperfections, and with the recognition that my voice may never be enough. But as Dr. Paul Kalanithi wrote in his inspirational memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air,” “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”
As a new doctor and a columnist for STAT, I look forward to sharing my stories from the frontiers of health and medicine.