I used to write just to write, for no particular reason – it was just something I liked to do. I had one of those way-too-popular black Moleskine journals that are about the size of a back pocket, and I would sit on a bench of my undergraduate campus and write a poem or a paragraph or anything that came to mind. I don’t do that anymore. Instead, I learn. I learn all the time. And when I’m not learning, I think about learning; I plan out when and how I’m going to learn, and think about all of the things that I want and need to learn.
As a first year medical student, much of what we’re responsible for learning is hard, biological science. Our core classes are meant to teach us the background information we must understand in order to eventually treat patients. Sometimes, in the midst of all the biomedical science, as ironic as it may seem, I forget what I’m really doing here. I spend so much energy trying to master the material at hand, I forget how it fits into the big picture of what I’m trying to accomplish in medical school and beyond. When there’s a test around the corner and 200 pages of information to learn, many first-years might agree that it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. Luckily, OHSU has found a way to attenuate the tunnel vision so many of us find ourselves slipping into by cycling our focus between our books and the clinic.
OHSU is well known for providing medical students with an excellent clinical education. I think its success in this area takes root right now, in our first year, with hands-on labs and mandatory clinical experiences. Both provide us an outlet from our core science classes and serve as consistent reminders that our focus should not be on pure knowledge, but on its application.
A few weeks ago, while learning about the cardiovascular system, we participated in a lab in which we learned to put lines into live anesthetized animals. We held beating hearts in our hands, and observed and tested the effects of mass blood loss on the heart and vasculature. I was reminded that I am not studying heart failure to pass a test, but rather to be a physician who will work with actual sick people and attempt to heal them.
Last week, I spent an eight-hour shift in the pediatric emergency room with my preceptor, a physician I’m assigned to work with once a week so that I am continually building up my bank of clinical experiences. During these eight hours, I learned more about treating people than I felt I had in the prior couple of months combined. I interviewed and examined countless patients; I assisted in suturing a child’s face; I spent time with children who have chronic diseases such as cerebral palsy, Crohn’s disease, and sickle cell anemia; and I learned the details of how these children’s illnesses affect them every day. I learned about white blood cell counts and skin rashes and hernias. I watched parents worry and ask questions and cry. I saw families’ love that was so strong the medical team could barely do its job because parents wouldn’t let go of their child’s hand. All of this and more in eight hours.
These are the reasons I am here – to have real effects on real people’s lives. I am here to be the person who walks into the hospital room and has the answers that placate patients’ fears. I am here to make the hard choices, to explain the harsh realities. I am here to learn science because you have to know the science to understand the diseases. But more than that, I’m here to provide the connection between illness and the people who are sick. I’m here to bridge that all-important gap, with the hope that it will result in more understanding, more positive outcomes and more healthy individuals. It is experiences such as procedural labs and shifts with attending physicians that serve as the rejuvenating reminders I need to keep me going, even amidst the seemingly insurmountable scientific facts and processes I still need to master.
And I’m also here to write about it, because for me, sharing my experiences is part of my goal. No matter how little time I have to write or how much material I have to learn, I think sharing these experiences with others has its own separate importance. I believe that if people knew more about our medical training, then those outside of medicine could better understand why we are physicians and what we hope to accomplish, not just for medicine, but for people.