Avina De Simone is a medical student in the Class of 2018 at McGill University
I wish I would have known what it feels like to walk in your shoes.
I wish I would have known what it feels like live in your country.
I wish I would have known what it feels like to want to end my life.
I wish I would have known how to help you.
I had many doubts throughout my clerkship journey. I always wondered if I was truly helping others, or if my efforts would ever improve my patients’ quality of life.
Growing up and as an adult, I was fortunate to never go to bed hungry, feel cold in my bed during the wintertime, or have family members harm me. Yet during clerkship, a large portion of my patients — whether refugees from abroad or native Montréalers — dealt with these horrific problems every day of their lives. Thus, I spent the majority of my clerkship months doubting my role as a healer. I often asked myself, How could I ever become a good clerk or physician if I couldn’t relate to my patients? Or, How can this short interaction genuinely help people?
It took several months for me to finally begin to understand how I could fit into the coveted role of healer. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could learn to hone qualities such as compassion, insight, openness, and respect, among many others. It took me a long time to realize that although I will never know exactly what these horrible experiences feel like, I will have the knowledge to be able to help others dealing with them.
Ultimately, there are four key messages that I wish to impart to my first-year colleagues following three years of medical training.
The first: listen to your patient, and not just with your ears! I cannot stress enough how many times I gathered more information from a person’s tone of voice or their body language to uncover the hidden meanings of what they were trying to tell me. For example, when a patient is on the verge of tears, what they actually are trying to say is that they want to talk about the reasons behind those tears. Active listening is integral to the healer role. Acknowledging a person’s concerns and allowing time for your patient to express themselves may sometimes be all the therapy a person needs.
Second: it’s okay not to know everything… as long as you’re willing to learn. For example, on my first day on a hospital ward, I felt completely overwhelmed with the numerous tasks and the very sick patients I was assigned to — most of whom were unable to communicate with me. Being asked to care for four patients made me feel scared and worried about whether or not I would be able to provide them with the best care as their medical representative. However, if you are willing to devote the time to learn from the staff and residents and make a couple of mistakes (because it’s inevitable), then as the weeks go by, you will become accustomed to the daily life of the healer.
Third: it’s okay to wish you could do more… in fact, you’ve already done more than you think. In the first year of medical school, we are taught that the greatest way of caring for a patient is to demonstrate unyielding compassion and empathy. However, after a twelve-hour shift, instead of feeling that you should have done more for your patients and leaving the hospital feeling frustrated, you should feel satisfied and proud of the work you completed that day. Accepting that there will always be more work to do in itself shows the resilience necessary to be a healer.
The last key lesson: get out of your comfort zone as much as possible — this is where you will improve the most. I cannot tell you how hard it was for me to learn how to ask the tough questions. I remember following up with a patient during my family medicine rotation. After our interaction, my staff asked me how the patient felt about her abortion that had taken place and I was unable to answer this question since I had felt too uncomfortable to ask during the interview. Looking back at this experience, being able identify my weaknesses through situations that were complex contributed to my growth as a future physician.
To conclude, it is normal to question whether or not you have achieved the healer role throughout medical training. What I have come to realize is that being a physician is a continuous work-in-progress. If you listen to your patients, learn to deal with the unknown, feel satisfied with your work, and strengthen your weaknesses, then the word ‘healer’ will not just be a word anymore. It will be you.