Lots of people ask me what it’s like to be a medical student working in the hospital. I tell them it’s like being a monk, only without the time for sleeping. ‘No, no! Tell me about the cool stuff you get to do!’ Med students get this question a lot and now, after a few years in the biz, something has finally dawned on me… that question is really codespeak for ‘Tell me stuff I want to hear about!’ What I think is really cool and what my non-medical friends and family think is really cool doesn’t always match up.
For example, everybody wants stories about babies. As a medical student, you cannot tell enough baby stories. I’m beginning to think that I should always keep a stable of birthing anecdotes handy just in case someone asks, ‘So Bob, tell me about medical school!’ at a dinner party. There are even certain people to whom I’ll only tell baby stories- did the baby have hair, was the child a boy or a girl, was he/she cute, etc. Everybody goos and gahs and makes happy squealing noises and then conversation shifts to the Red Sox. Don’t get me wrong- there are few thrills greater than bringing a new life into the world, but that’s only a part of what we do.
The problem lies in the fact that what medical students think is really cool and the experiences that become the highlight of our month/week/year are often a bit ‘too real’ for people to hear about. Part of that is related to the process of desensitization- things that used to really flip my stomach often don’t have that effect any more. Vomit is still gross but now instead of grabbing my nose and fixating on how bad it smells, I’m grabbing my nose and leaning closer to see if it’s bilious, feculent, frankly bloody, or perhaps a sample of ‘coffee-ground’ emesis. When you know what you’re looking for and what it means it’s all fascinating stuff. For some strange reason, only my medical school friends get excited about vomit. Nobody else seems interested…
A great part of that perception gap between the medical and non-medical world is that your view of things changes when you begin to have a deeper academic understanding of what you’re seeing. For example, one thing I rarely speak about outside of my medical friends that probably had the greatest impact on my medical school career was dissecting cadavers during our Gross Anatomy course. It’s generally considered an uncomfortable topic for understandable reasons- dissection is a very personal confrontation with death. It was uncomfortable at first; however, in no time at all, the cold limb on the table became so much more than a picture of death with all of its morbid and fantastical emotional baggage in tow- it became a window into the intricate workings of the human body: skin over fat over fascia over muscle, nerve, tendon, lymph, ligament, vessel, and bone. It’s difficult to state the impact that had on me. I remain in awe of the gift of knowledge that was given to me by Miriam, the woman who gave her body after death so that a medical student she never met could pore over her anatomy like a textbook. It was the greatest learning experience of my life, so much so that I intend to donate my body when I die. THAT is cool stuff I get to do in medical school. That is also something I NEVER bring up at dinner parties.
On a lighter note, I forgot about the perception gap at a friend’s family gathering the other day when someone asked me what exciting things I had seen lately. I excitedly recounted how, for the first time in my life, I had reached into a patient’s chest and touched his beating heart. It was during an operation to remove part of a patient’s lung and, as I gently retract part of the upper lobe of the lung for the surgeon, my gloved hand came to rest against the very pump that delivers life to the body. That gooey, pulsating chunk of muscle along the back of my hand was the living, beating core of the patient. Not only that, but I was feeling and touching a part of the patient that he had never seen!
I thought that was the coolest thing in the world, but two girls who were present decided it was cool enough to make them not want to finish lunch. As my friend gave me the withering stink-eye from across the table, I countered with a quick baby story and beat a hasty retreat toward the fruit plate.