hen I was a medical student, I was ghosted by the surgical resident who had been assigned to mentor me for an overnight shift for which we would be on call.
We met up at 5 p.m. the night of the shift. He told me to grab a snack for the night ahead and we’d meet up again in an an hour to “go over some stuff.” I stayed up all night waiting for him, regularly paging him, even hovering in the area where I thought he would be.
I never saw him again.
A few months ago, it was my turn to be a mentor. A student from Harvard Medical School joined my team at Cambridge Health Alliance. That day, we were supposed to meet with the family of a patient to update them on her care, but when the time came, I just got up and left her there.
I had a grand plan to teach my medical student something I was passionate about: effective doctor-patient communication. And then I forgot to communicate with her.
Every generation of of physicians is responsible for educating the next. This extends beyond time we spend in classrooms to our clinical education. A lot of what we learn, we learn from more experienced doctors, and that includes everything from our physical examination skills to our bedside manner. It can be pretty gratifying.
One of my co-interns had tutored his medical student on EKGs and had a good experience. I was hoping for the same connection with my student, to have that feeling of being a good educator. I had hoped to make up for the experience I’d had when I was a student.
When it was me being ditched, I was angry. But I chose to give the surgical resident the benefit of the doubt — he easily could have gotten caught up in something important. During that clinical year, I noticed that even the residents who were excited to teach would say, “be right back,” and not resurface for several hours or more. As a first-year resident now, I know firsthand that simple tasks can multiply like bunnies, and pull you in many different directions at once. Sometimes, by the time I can stop and breathe, I realize I’ve forgotten to eat lunch.
Back in medical school, I saw that residents didn’t always have time to look for their students — as the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.” So I learned to watch my residents like a hawk. If they got up, I got up. If they said, “be right back,” I would say, “I’m coming with you.”
By the summer of my third year, I’d gotten maybe too good at being a professional shadow. And I’m not the only one. Ask any medical student how many times they’ve accidentally followed a resident to the bathroom.
But being a little stalker-ish was me taking ownership of my education. After all, in the blink of an eye, your resident could vanish into thin air and be off practicing medicine, and you aren’t there to learn from any of it.
Yes, this was about my education. But it was also about perception. After my experience with the overnight call, I was worried about how our disconnect would be written up in my evaluations, and that maybe it would be twisted to make me look bad. This happens sometimes in medicine.
So, when I saw my own medical student running toward me, frazzled, with her white coat flying behind her, I felt really bad. I had failed her in the way so many residents had failed me, and I had been determined from the onset not to let this happen.
In her case, she caught me at exactly the right time. The meeting, which she knew about, and had been waiting for, had been delayed, and then, suddenly, the family was ready. That’s why I got up abruptly and walked out of the workroom, where all the interns and medical students were in the zone, focused on writing notes. She must have turned her back for just a second.
As she approached, I was with my attending, going over how I was going to present this family their options, to make sure I would do it right. I made a mental note to apologize to the student later.
We went in together, and she watched me explain the patient’s course of care, answer the family’s questions, and come up with a collaborative game plan going forward. The meeting went well, and later when we talked about it, both she and the attending gave me positive feedback. It was then when I wanted to ask for her forgiveness. It was important to me that she knew she was an appreciated member of our team.
But once again it slipped my mind because I was focused on what I needed to learn from their feedback rather than on what I needed to teach. We all got caught up in the hustle and bustle of life on the medicine wards, and I never did get to apologize.
With all the new responsibility of residency it was too easy to forget how easy it is to be forgotten. My medical student looked so panicked, but, of course, it wasn’t her fault. While I felt bad, I also tried hard not to laugh, because this moment in my training had come full circle. The forgotten became the forgetter, and seeing her frustration reminded me, as a rule, to think about the people a few steps behind me. That’s all it takes to be a better teacher, a better mentor, and a better doctor.
I wanted to teach her about efficient, effective, and empathetic communication. Instead, she ended up teaching me.
Dr. Jennifer Okwerekwu is a first-year resident in the adult psychiatry training program at Cambridge Health Alliance.