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Stanford University School of Medicine

Identity and medicine: A med student’s reflection on what makes us who we are

I realized at a young age that I'm not a very “cool” person. As my elementary school entomology club’s founding member, my high-school marching band’s woodwind captain, and a 24-year-old who still plays Pokémon, I’ve known for a while now that I’m a bit of a dork. Which is why I was surprised a few weeks ago when Paul Costello reached out to interview me for his award-winning 1:2:1 podcast — having previously profiled people like Brian Kobilka, Oliver Sacks, and Jimmy Carter — to talk about myself. While it’s true that I don’t have a Nobel Prize, a New York Times bestseller, or a secret service detail, in my case our conversation was meant to be a bit different. As the first in a series about diversity in medicine, our guiding question was simple: What does it mean to be a medical student?

For me, the first two years of medical school boil down to, if nothing else, a real and scary crisis of identity, so that’s what Paul and I talked about. Tucked away in the small, dimly lit sound room where we recorded the podcast, I tried to explain the paradox, as I’ve experienced it, of being a student and a member of a medical care team at the same time. On one hand, most med students are drawn to medicine because we enjoy caring for other people and connecting with them on a deep, personal level. But on the other, as trainees we’re not actually knowledgeable enough to be very useful to the patients we interact with. To be a student-doctor, then, casts you in an uncomfortable, transitional role that carries with it both the need to do right by your patient and the clumsy feeling of not quite knowing what you’re doing.

But the awkwardness doesn’t stop there. As med students, most of us are in our early- to mid-twenties and so are still trying to answer basic questions about who we are. Some of them are medicine-related (i.e. “what specialty am I interested in?”), but many aren’t. When I look at my classmates, I see a staggering array of interests and experiences as well as many different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. For us, the burden of sorting through what those differences mean about our lives falls during this incredibly busy, emotionally charged time in which our identities are constantly challenged by our peers, our superiors, and our patients, whose diversity reflects our own.

Something I wish I’d fleshed out more during the podcast is that, for me, much of my own “identity-seeking” during medical school has had to do with my sexual orientation. To be honest, I didn’t really think of myself as being “gay” until I started medical training last year. I mean, I had been out to my friends and family for years after going through all the clichés (knowing I was “different” as a kid, tearfully coming out to my best friend during high school, uncomfortably watching "Brokeback Mountain" with my parents in 2013, etc.). But it wasn’t until I came to medicine that I first learned about the health disparities facing much of the LGBTQ+ community and experienced being “out” in a professional context where the rainbow pin on my white coat or my personal affectations might set me apart.

Together, these experiences challenged me to be critical about how my background has and will continue to inform my experience in the world of medicine. Sometimes, I wonder if having grown up dorky and closeted in a small Arizona town is what ultimately brought me here — to a field in which overcoming our differences and striving for human connection are daily currency. I wonder how my own personal biases will affect my patients, who will often be very different from myself. And I think about the changing face of the medical profession, so exclusive until just recently, which has allowed me to grapple with these questions and which holds so much promise for the future.

Tim Keyes is a second-year medical student in the Stanford's Medical Science Training Program. He likes microglia, kickboxing, pop music written for teenage girls, and telling stories about first dates gone wrong (which Tim claims are almost always his fault). He can be reached at

Photo courtesy of Tim Keyes

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