Deep breath. Knock softly and step into the room.
Wait, straighten the white coat first. Is the collar smooth? Will they be able to see that I feel like a kindergartener again, tottering around in my mother’s favorite heels? No time to worry about that now. I’m in the exam room shaking hands – hers tremulous with old age, mine with nerves – looking into the milky eyes of my first patient.
I am in a tiny town in rural Washington, shadowing a family care physician who explains my role as a medical student to the white-haired woman before me, as I have temporarily forgotten how to speak. The patient smiles, her eyes twinkling merrily as they roam over the Cougar insignia on my coat and the stethoscope I have slung around my shoulders.
In my first year of medical school, I spend my days studying anatomy, histology, pathology, and biochemistry, as well as social sciences and the skills of practicing medicine as an art. Along with my classmates, I’m learning how to evaluate research, apply evidence-based medicine, and practice leadership.
In addition, we have the privilege of participating in clinical intersessions during which we rotate through hospitals and clinics. Physicians supervise us as we work directly with patients, observing and practicing the skills we have learned and building ties to the communities where we will eventually live and serve. These experiences are eye-opening and full of inspirational moments, serving as daily reminders of the purpose of our hard work in the classroom and late hours spent in the library, the anatomy lab, and our favorite coffee haunts.
When I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information we are responsible for, I take a moment to reflect on these patient interactions. I think of mothers letting me hold their newborns, children giggling while I check their ears for bunnies, high-schoolers trusting me with the intimate details of their teenage heartaches, elderly patients sharing their fears of dementia, and surgical patients describing their resolve to return to activities they have abandoned due to pain. I have listened to their heartbeats and breath sounds. I have checked their bodies for suspicious bumps and bruises. Most importantly, I have heard their stories and validated their feelings, learning all the while what it means to be a healer.
Medicine is not just about a diagnosis or a cure – it’s about mitigating fears, addressing the unknown, advocating for patients and using scientific expertise to improve quality of life. And learning the art of medicine is only achieved with a debt of gratitude to the patients and providers who make it possible.
Back in the exam room in that rural clinic, I begin to examine our patient, tracing the motions of the physician as she shows me where to place my instruments. “I would have loved to be a doctor,” our patient says quietly, “but in my day, girls didn’t get to do things like that.” My fingers are resting on her papery wrist, clumsily taking a radial pulse. She pats the back of my hand for encouragement and says, “Make us proud, honey.” Warmth floods my chest at her words. I look up, grateful and surprised at the sweetness of this gift, and promise her I will.
This article is part of an ongoing series focusing on Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, written by the medical students themselves.
For more information visit medicine.wsu.edu/