To this day, Quillen’s Director of Admissions tells me I was the sickest student he’d ever seen interview in forty years. I was wrought with aches and fever that caused my suit to drip in ravaging misery. He even forced me to down a glass of Alka-Seltzer Cold and Flu in his office. Imagine me as a gloriously majestic toad in professional garb, beaded-up with greasy water and flailing on the riverbank of my hopes and dreams. All while I was trying to coherently articulate some semblance of justification as to why this place should accept me over other folks. One of my interviewers even told me she felt sorry for me and that we could take a time-out if I wanted (Foreshadowing: I work with her now). Sometimes I felt like I’d have been better served to just mail in a paper football message that unfolded to read,
Look at me, feeling myself and totally crushing it like a troll (sarcasm). Four days later I was leaving the country for a year and for that reason, I couldn’t reschedule my interview. Life happens. Honestly, most of the day was a blur except for running into a friend from undergrad in the late afternoon, who happened to be a member of what would become the class above mine. What he said clicked with me, and it turns out to have become the foundation of my perspective both on practicing as a physician, and on what’s important in selecting training programs, whether that’s a medical school, residency, fellowship, or otherwise.
He told me Quillen students are unlike others. Sitting in the lecture hall surrounded by your classmates, the support is overwhelming. A class of strong, community-minded physicians is the priority. Everyone wants you to perform as well, if not better, than they do because we all know we will likely be treating each other’s loved ones some day. Actually treating one another in the future—unsettling. Delivering each other’s children; caring for aging parents and grandparents; reining in the implosion when catastrophe in each other’s world strikes; this is what wanting to help people actually meant in part when you wrote it on your personal statement. Tests don’t matter, lives do.
Now halfway through completing my third year and well into my clinical training, I have grown with that sentiment that first caused me to walk through the door. It is no secret that medical school is a nebulous bubble of isolation. You forget what is brewing in the outside world. Early on, I had a tendency to just laser in on the most efficient method to wench my jaw open and gulp the fire hose of medical information blasted at me. (Confession: I secretly wished my lower jaw separated down the midline like those snakes swallowing eggs whole seen in videos hidden in the weird part of YouTube.)
And then reality checks in, hard. A classmate’s parent dies unexpectedly while another’s grandparent was just placed on home hospice. Marriages end tragically with vicious divorces and custody battles. Spouses in the military get deployed. A different classmate streams burning tears down her cheeks with the news of miscarrying her first pregnancy. Yet another tries to escape an abusive relationship kept quiet from the rest of us with the strong, “I’m training to be a doctor,” façade. Someone else’s morning eye-opener requires more than a Colombian roast and creamer. The person who sat in front of you three rows down for every pharmacology lecture, and who used no less than 13 colors of highlighters, commits suicide on a weekend. An empty chair with a single flower sits among the rows on stage at the graduation ceremony. The deafening silence fills your ears. It clouds your mind. It sinks you down to a place of cold exposure you’d likely never known beforehand. These realities could happen to any medical student at any medical school. (Another confession: Maybe burnout is not so impossible.)
While the personal life tempest rises, exams dates are still scheduled and your empathy and compassion have to be drummed up from pits of emptiness. Your Spanish-speaking patient at thirty-seven weeks pregnant hadn’t felt her baby move in twenty-four hours. You gingerly let the words pour out, “I see no heartbeat,” the sounds feeling inevitably callous—true daggers as they fall from your lips. Mr. L’s family is waiting in the ICU to make the decision for terminal extubation. Surgery receives a trauma page for a pedestrian slammed head-on by a car who’s ten minutes out on EMS. Internal medicine tells the thirty-one year old father with a wife and two toddlers that he has metastatic colon cancer, Stage IIIB. You silently watch a single icy tear well up in his stoic eyes that are clenching onto your words. His wringing hands and knuckle-cracks resonate off the pewter tile floor.
But sometimes the three-year-old in a Batman t-shirt runs back to you for one last grinning high-five as he bee-bops out of the clinic in squeaky shoes, closely trailing Mom. A nervous dad looks to you for reassurance with a half-cocked smile of terror as he holds his newborn the first time. Before you IV push the anesthesia induction agent in a packed OR, the elderly patient whispers falteringly to you just so where no one else can hear him, “I’m scared I won’t wake up, Doc. Will you be sure I do?” The preteen opens up to you about other kids at school teasing her for being overweight. She meekly asks, “If I stop eating, will it help me be thinner so everyone likes me?” A disabled patient who’d been abused and starved by his family to a feathery eighty-eight pounds lives to be discharged weeks later. He writes you a simple Thank You note expressing gratitude for being a presence of strength and stability for him; it stays in your grungy white coat pocket next to mints, pens, and scrap paper full of things you’ll never actually look up.
We all have our own derived versions of these stories, both struggles and celebrations. Physicians are gifted a singular opportunity to intimately experience people, including each other, at their most vulnerable moments in all extremes. During these instances, we turn to our peers for insight and solidarity. The one thing we all try to convey before starting medical school is that as future physicians, we all feel, and feel deeply. The magnitude of that personal characteristic becomes more apparent as we progress through our training. To holster it, or somehow recoil from the compassion, whatever the circumstances may be, is a disservice to all of us and our higher sense of medical humanity. (Final confession: I’ve learned that people are rarely at their best when they need us the most, and that includes each other.)
Medical education may be a bubble-boy world full of seemingly magical explanations and bugs and drugs and physical exam signs named for old-man-physicians and #howmanysyllablescanIstringtogethers, but it is not a complete vacuum. Life happens, both personally and professionally, and being in a place like Quillen where such camaraderie exists among colleagues reframes the perspective of what to value in all our journeys to becoming physicians.