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What the presidential election taught me about medicine

The morning after the recent presidential election, I entered our clinic building feeling as though I was in a daze. Like many people, I had stayed up late following the election results and trying to understand what they meant for our collective future. I could see our country’s divisions fresh in my mind. I could picture the electoral map, with each state colored firmly either “red” or “blue;" I could picture the graphs of exit polls that had neatly defined “voting blocks” based on gender, race, and level of education. With these lenses, it became horribly easy to see every state, county, and demographic group as either “for” or “against;" one side, or the other.

These huge divisions that had been exposed by the campaign season seemed insurmountable.

In that moment, I caught myself questioning the importance of my clinic appointments that day. As just one person, one citizen, one medical student, what influence do I really have? What difference can I make, compared to the newly elected “most powerful person in the world”?

Despite my preoccupations, the health-care world continued to run that day. Patients kept their appointments and showed up to clinic – suggesting that their medical problems still existed regardless of who was elected president. This meant that as soon as it was time to knock and open the exam room door to see my first patient, any and all baggage from the night, days, and weeks before had to be put aside.

As soon as I entered that room, I was immediately reminded that the word “against” isn’t even in our vocabulary as physicians. We don’t need to pick sides, because we are always at our patients’ sides. We don’t get to choose who comes through our doors: We simply help, to the best of our abilities, whomever is sitting in front of us. When we ask our patients questions to understand who they are and where they are coming from, it’s not so that we can classify them into blocks; it’s so that we can understand their situations to better serve them as health-care providers.

When I entered that room and met my first patient that morning, I didn’t find somebody who was red or blue, working class or wealthy, educated or non-educated. I found somebody who was worried and troubled by recent problems with her health – somebody who needed all the help that I was able to offer. As I left the room after that encounter, I knew that I had been wrong: These clinic visits weren’t less important because of our election. In fact, to me and to my patients, they were the most important thing of all.

Stanford Medicine Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category. 

Nathaniel Fleming is a third-year medical student and a native Oregonian. His interests include health policy and clinical research. 

Image by AK Rockefeller

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