Danielle Penney is a medical student in the Class of 2021 at McMaster University
“Doctors are jerks.” It was a statement that I had always steadfastly believed to be true; a matter-of-fact statement, just like saying the sky is blue. Though I had no shortage of concrete personal examples to justify my belief, the irony was not lost on me as I stared out from behind the glass of the nursing station, ready to begin my first clinical experience as a new medical student.
I was in the child and adolescent psychiatric ward. From the nursing station, I could see the ward’s common area: the bolted-down tables and chairs, the colourful pictures adorning the walls, the patients scattered about the room—some in groups, some alone. It was a scene that was familiar, yet different. This was far from my first time in a psych ward, but it was my first time being on this side of the glass.
Doctors are jerks... I’m going to be a doctor. I toyed around with these juxtaposing statements in my head, trying to make sense of how they could ever fit together.
As I looked out at the patients, my mind wandered back to the first time I had been in a psych ward.
I was 14 years old, admitted for multiple wrist lacerations from self-harm. I remember sitting in my room, feeling lonely and scared, when a physician walked in. He looked at my wrists and rolled his eyes in disgust. He looked at me and said, “I could stitch this up, but I’m not going to; that way, you’ll never do this again.” He made the decision to leave thick scars on my body for the rest of my life just to teach me a lesson. I didn’t question him; he was the doctor and I was just a kid. To this day, I can’t get the image of his face out of my mind.
Still standing in the nursing station, I pull my sleeves over the thick scars that permanently mark me and will cause a cloud of stigma to follow me for the rest of my life. “Doctors are jerks,” I mutter to myself.
During my shift that day, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was on the wrong side of the glass. The role of the patient was what was familiar to me; I didn’t belong here. At the age of 20, I was just a few years older than some of these patients.
What if my preceptor saw my scars? Would she think less of me?
What if my patient saw them? Would they respect me less? Would it affect the precious trust in our patient-provider relationship?
These were the questions that raced through my head my entire shift, but I doubt I'll find concrete answers to them anytime soon.
As I write this months later, I have completed many more clinical experiences and am slowly beginning to feel more comfortable in the role of a healthcare provider. Of course, the nagging feelings of being out of place still linger, as I expect them to for some time. I know now that the key to a successful transition from the role of patient to provider is allowing the space between the person who I was and the physician I hope to become to inspire rather than scare me. Never letting myself forget how it felt to be that scared girl lying in a hospital bed will allow me to be the best physician I can.
Because maybe, just maybe, not all doctors are jerks.