The Big Questions and Gray Areas: How I Grew During Third Year of Medical School
“It was incredibly hard. I learned more than I ever thought possible.”
My childhood friend Allison had asked me about my third year of medical school, which is notorious for being challenging, overwhelming, exhausting, rewarding, and exhilarating.
The first two years of medical school are typical school with weekday classes and unit tests every few weeks. Then during third year (called “core clinical” year), we are immersed in the day-to-day work of being a physician. We spend approximately 8 weeks working with resident teams in the hospital in each of the core medical disciplines: internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology, and psychiatry. At the end of each rotation, we complete a national exam.
I went into third year expecting to apply, reinforce, and build upon the book knowledge accrued during my first two years of medical school, blissfully unaware of the uncertainties and philosophical challenges inherent to a patient’s medical care. But during third year, I mainly had to learn acceptance. Acceptance that medical decisions are rarely obvious, that internal validation need not be secondary to external validation, and that the best patient care starts with proper self-care.
As medical students, we have a vague understanding of the limitations of medicine. A Wall Street Journal article entitled “Why Doctors Die Differently” by Dr. Ken Murray details the phenomenon of medical professionals utilizing fewer medical services than the average American when making end-of-life decisions. Medical professionals witness patients receiving interventions that prolong the days, but sacrifice the quality, of life. People who work in medicine see the tolls that CPR, feeding tubes, and ventilators place on already vulnerable patients. The general public has been primed by the media to see these treatments as more often life-saving than not. Those without medical backgrounds hear what is possible; but medical professionals recognize what is realistic. During medical school, we are taught the contraindications to certain procedures or treatments. There is rarely discussion about what to do in that murky in between: when something can be done, but may not be in the patient’s best interest.
I will never forget a patient I had on internal medicine whose daughter demanded he be “full code”, meaning that if the patient went into cardiac arrest he would receive CPR and a breathing tube to be kept alive. The patient was 88-years-old, with metastatic colon cancer and an infection in his blood. I felt for the daughter of the patient. She had no other experience with this sort of care. I also felt for the medical provider, who described that giving this patient CPR would be inflicting immense pain and suffering (ribs break during CPR) to a patient who had an already poor prognosis.
These situations were common in the hospital. In these moments, I felt as if I existed in limbo. I resided in the in-between space; I was both the medical professional and the patient’s daughter. It was from this vantage that I realized everyone has the same goal: self-preservation while acting in the patient’s best interest. Each side just approaches the situation from a different angle.
End-of-life discussions were the moments when I grew the most. All of the physiology, pharmacology, and anatomy that I fervently studied meant very little when trying to quantify the quality of a patient’s life. I came to understand that sometimes, the best thing to do is step back, assess the bigger picture, and ask ourselves what we are trying to accomplish.
I also took stalk of my own life during third year. I have always put pressure on myself to be “the best” and honed study skills over the years so that I know what I need to succeed. In third year, the evaluations by our attendings and residents are also factored in to our final grade. The way a student’s personality, interests, and sense of humor jived with a resident’s often reflected the student’s grade more than anything else. In the beginning of the year, I would often change my interests and style to fit that of the attending. I approach medicine from a bio-psycho-social perspective, but many of the doctors with whom I worked did not. Often, a doctor would scoff at the socio-economic factors involved in the patient’s health. I would feign disinterest, if only to appease the resident. As the year went on, I came to value my opinion of myself more than any one attending or resident’s opinion of me. Patients went out of their way to thank me for my help and ask for me to be there with them during procedures, which reassured me that my approach is valid. Though I did not always receive the best numerical grade, I was able to sleep better knowing that I provided patients with what I believed to be the best possible care.
Third year forced me to consider the big questions. I needed to come to terms with the impossibility of being “the best”, realizing that it can be easy to become so hyper-focused that we neglect what’s truly important. I faced my fears: not only will I not excel at everything, but I can’t expect myself to. I realized that ethical gray areas exist, and that what I typically worried about didn’t really matter. I had to start balancing self-care with self-actualization, and for that I would not trade anything.
Alyssa Wohl is a now fourth-year medical student from New York. She is hoping to work as an Adolescent Medicine doctor. She enjoys chocolate, yoga, and spending time with her two pugs.