Reflections of what I have been fortunate enough to observe thus far in my journey with medicine.
1. Always have patience (pun unintended).
To choose just one indispensable quality is difficult to say the least, but I would pick patience every time. A calm and composed demeanor is essential for those in your care who are often afraid and confused. The profession of healing holds a startling irony in that even for the most urgent of wounds, there remain thorough steps to be followed before taking action. In the same way, whether it be talking to family members, splinting a leg, or doing an ambulance inventory check, the harm that comes from haste can be much greater than a few moments of delay.
2. There is no unteachable experience.
If all of us did something perfectly the very first time we did it, we would never get better. Therefore, take every criticism as a blessing. As an EMT, I am grateful for my instructors who called me out for the smallest of mistakes because the corrections stuck like glue in my head. Be aware of how your superiors do every move. It makes sense that becoming a physician is such a perfection-demanding path because there is no room for excuses. The wellbeing of real people is at hand, not plastic mannequins.
3. They are sick, not helpless.
The last thing people want is to be pitied. In fact, there lies an oddity in a 60-something male letting me, a teenage girl, treat him for a condition he has had for years and one she learned a matter of days ago. Most patients want to keep as much of their autonomy as possible, and doing things for themselves is vital to their self-esteem. So let them as long as it is safe. Don’t baby them and definitely don’t look at them as embodiments of their illnesses.
4. The truly best way to improve is hands-on practice. And LOTS of it.
There is only so much you can master in theory through wordy knowledge of what you are supposed to do in a certain situation. The best example I can provide is taking blood pressure manually. As a list of directions and even watching a demonstration, it seemed easy. But when I tried it for myself, I struggled quite a bit in the beginning. After exhausting the arms of several volunteers, I finally felt competent enough. It’s the same case with larger scale endeavors. Unloading a stretcher. Bleeding control. Surgeries. Practice until you can do it in your sleep. You only get one first impression with a patient.
5. Everyone is different.
Some think this is obvious, but it still needs to be said. Each patient I have encountered has been unique. One of them literally told me she loved me. Another did not speak to me at all. Both had cancer. It is at your discretion whether to make polite conversation, joke around, or leave them alone. Read their cues. With kids, too, your behavior will change. I have had patients tell me entire stories, juxtaposed with those who have yelled at me. Don’t take it personal. It is not about you. They are priority, not your ego. Remember it might be the worst day of their life while you get to go home after work.
6. Understand the emotional toll is inevitable.
You are going to see so much crying. Unbearable loss. Hear heartbreaking tales. Hold the warmest of hands enduring the coldest of afflictions. You will wonder why the sweetest people receive the most devastating news. I found myself, in a twistedly morbid manner, wishing I could be in the shoes of a paralyzed woman with multiple sclerosis to know and share her pain. When I spoke to her, my words of comfort sounded futile coming out of my mouth because how could I know what she felt? How could I sit next to her and not be guilty of my health and youth? Yet it is all worth it for the smiles. The “thank yous.” The solace in knowing that although you may miss them, once they leave it means they don’t need you anymore.
7. Documentation is everything.
If you never recorded it, it never happened. Period. Medicine has tons of paperwork (now shifting to electronic data). And the truth is, all of it is pretty important. Sure it’s tedious, but it is useful. From a legal standpoint, it will save you. Incident reports. Consent forms. DNRs. Allergies noted. Pertinent negatives. There is no detail negligible enough to omit. From an information perspective, it will keep you organized. As sharp as your memory may be, seeing so many patients is bound to jumble them up. In addition, the smallest symptom could become the answer for a diagnosis. So bottom line: listen intently and write it all down.
8. Be confident — but stay humble.
This short statement can be interpreted on a wide spectrum. If you are nervous about performing a procedure on a patient, do not under any circumstances let it show. You are their source of reassurance. But be courageous enough to tell your superior. Ask for help. I used to feel like I was bothering nurses for a transfer of care signature. But I realized it was just something I had to do. I belonged in the hospital for my role as much as they did and there was no reason to be hesitant. Also, be brave enough to point out if your partner went wrong somewhere, like not decontaminating equipment properly. Finally, be open minded. Don’t think you always know right.