SMS ("Stanford Medical School") Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.
This blog entry marks my last contribution to SMS Unplugged. I am two months from graduating from Stanford Medical School and starting my adventures as an intern. My fiancé and I happily matched at Baylor for our residencies and look forward to contributing to patient care in Houston. Having finished my clinical duties and finding myself spending less time in the hospital, I didn't anticipate the powerful experience I would have at a patient's bedside this past week.
In my clerkships I have encountered various situations in patient care that are difficult to deal with: the weight of sharing a negative prognosis, the death of a patient, disappointments in personal performance. Through these encounters I took pride in remaining professional and controlling my emotions, finding a balance between showing empathy and connecting with my patients but not allowing my personal feelings to take over. More specifically, I have never cried in front of a patient. This changed last week, and it happened in the most unexpected of moments.
As a teaching assistant for the second-year class my responsibilities include recruiting patients for students to interview and examine. For the most part, it's a tedious thing to do and can be a task to dread. But every now and then I meet a patient that reminds me how amazing patient - and human - contact can be. During my last recruitment session, I met a patient that made me cry. I cried not for her, but because she cried for me.
In the process of introducing myself I could tell that she was a warm and caring person. This made it easier to open up to her when she asked about me, where I was heading next, and what life plans my fiancé and I have. It's not usually a conversation I would have with a patient that I've only known for two minutes, but something about her genuine interest was welcoming. Wrapping up our conversation, I began to thank her and make my exit when she reached for my hand and asked if I could give her just two more minutes. Instead of continuing with generic conversation, she closed her eyes and began to pray while holding my hand tight.
Praying with a patient wasn't new; several patients in the past have asked for me to share moments of prayer with them, and they were beautiful moments. But this time it was about me. She prayed that I have a good residency experience and that I emerge from my training well prepared. Then she opened her eyes and revealed the tears that she would bless me with. She asked that I never forget the dynamic that I will share with my patients. She asked that I always remember to look my patients in the eye, check my position of power and recognize the intelligence of my patients, and more than anything "kick the heck out of life."
I don't know if it was the looming stress of residency, feeling like I'm still recovering from long nights of travel that littered my interview trail, or the fact that I was starting to get nostalgic at the thought of leaving Stanford, but before I knew it, I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks. I couldn't think of anything else to say but, "Thank you, I needed that." As I walked away that day I couldn't help but realize just how much I did need that. They were words of wisdom and words of support, but were also really a call to action.
I know I should expect a challenging time from residency, and while dreading the exhaustion I'm excited about the learning opportunity. I do want to respect my patients and look them in the eye. I do want to check my privilege and remember that I'm in a position of service. And more than anything, I want to look back on my life and be able to say that I did truly "kick the heck out of life."
Moises Gallegos is a fourth-year medical student. He'll be going into emergency medicine, and he's interested in public-health topics such as health education, health promotion and global health.
Sketch by Moises Gallegos