Knowing that even heroes have struggles is a comfort to med students.
The Doctoring course at the Warren Alpert Medical School pairs first- and second-year students with physicians in the community to practice a variety of physical exams and history-taking skills. In October 2016, I met my first year mentor. He was a big-deal surgical attending and I was a deer in headlights. We decided the best way to schedule our “mentoring sessions” was through text message. He was cool that way.
For our second meeting, I met him at his office and he proceeded to take me to see patients. I began to sweat. But thanks to my new white coat, he couldn’t tell. I had a new red notebook to take notes and a stethoscope just removed from its box. As we walked through the halls, I remained on his left and a step behind, following closely through the unfamiliar labyrinth.
There were many right turns from his office to the ICU. As he took the inside corner, I took the longer outer corner, forcing me occasionally to run to keep up. The backs of my stiff oxfords dug into my heels. His speed was extraordinary.
We passed through a set of double doors. BANG! My mentor’s arms flew up as he simultaneously spun toward me, falling backward. The pens and papers in his long coat pocket went airborne with him. He ended up in my arms, eyes wide, looking up at me. For a moment, we remained motionless, stunned, staring at each other. He immediately jumped up. We composed ourselves and picked up the dropped papers. My mentor, now bright red, said “thank you” as he cleared his throat. And as though nothing had happened, we pressed on through the halls. But, I noticed, from the corner of his mouth, a new smile.
There is a slit behind the bottom-side pocket on most white coats. The long handle that opened the double doors got caught on this slit—a fulcrum that turned my mentor’s exceedingly brisk velocity vertical.
This harrowing story serves as a warning for speeding doctors and health care workers alike. But it’s also a teaching moment that humanized this attending for his first-year mentee. As students, it’s hard to imagine our lives as attendings in a decade or more. It’s hard to imagine synthesizing all the information we have yet to learn. It’s comforting and reassuring to see our mentors, our heroes, struggle with a diagnosis.
There is no sudden moment when all our studying turns us into perfect doctors. Medicine is a difficult ebb and flow of constant learning, practicing, and improving. Please do not be afraid to show us your process.