Learning to be a doctor.
It sounds rather straight forward. Study everything about the human body, all the ways disease and injury can harm it, and each method we have of healing it. The daily goal of absorbing an overwhelming amount of information and committing it to memory seems impossible at times.
Anatomy lab was one such source of extensive, but engaging, information. In a lab session focused on the arm, the instructions were to dissect the delicate arteries and veins on one side; a task best accomplished with scissors. I went to work and rarely paused for three straight hours. Though I didn’t make as much progress on completing the arm as I would have liked, what I preserved looked good and enabled my classmates and me to appreciate the human body’s winding circulatory system.
It wasn’t until after the lab that I realized my thumb felt, for lack of a better word, weird. It took me a minute to realize why I couldn’t better describe it. There wasn’t any feeling to describe. While I could still use and move it easily, I had absolutely no feeling along the outer half of my thumb.
I felt confused at first, followed by a mild sense of panic. What had happened to my thumb? Should I be worried? And then I realized I had spent almost three hours with the thick metal loop of the scissors pressing against the tissues covering my first proximal phalanx. (Can you tell I’ve got the hand anatomy down?) I wondered: had this constant pressure somehow damaged the sensory nerves in my thumb?
I asked my lab instructor the next day and she revealed she had experienced something similar, but it always went away within a few hours. Nearly 24 hours had passed and I hadn’t regained any feeling. A doctor who was helping in the lab that day also reassured me the feeling would eventually come back, but it would take time to heal. She explained that the myelin sheath, which protects nerves and increases their speed of communication, had been damaged and these structures heal slowly. I hoped she was right, but I also couldn’t help thinking what it would mean if she wasn’t.
As the days went by and the feeling did not return to my thumb, I learned a lesson that went beyond the information portion of my medical education. I learned what it’s like to be a patient who is reassured that something is fine, and the fear that it might not actually be fine.
The idea of permanence of loss is unsettling regardless of what’s at stake. In respect to health, you can’t help but think, “What if I had sought treatment for this?” Or, “What if I had seen the doctor sooner?” And as you await the outcome, you dread of not knowing whether these questions will torture you for the rest of your life.
I also was reminded of how the body is astoundingly resilient and yet appallingly fragile all at once. A tiny slip in surgery or brief lapse of attention while taking a patient history could be either inconsequential or detrimental for my patient.
Thankfully, I have regained significant sensation in my thumb. Whether it’s fully healed remains unknown. Regardless of the final outcome, it now serves as an ever-present reminder that I am doing far more than consuming another lecture, another textbook chapter or another piece of information. This is the very substance of what will make a difference in my patients’ lives.
Just as I only get one right thumb, each of my future patients only get one body. They’re trusting my classmates and I to take care of it.
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