After 3 years of undergraduate pre-clinical medicine, I felt that I understood key physiological processes in the body.
I knew how hormones worked and the mechanisms of actions by which they created responses in far away tissues. I knew the different parts of the brainstem and how they provided control of many basic human functions. I knew how different organ systems interacted to result in homeostatic control. I knew all the bones in the body, as well as the major muscle attachments for each of these.
However, what I did not know was how to interact with a patient.
I could count the number of patients I had interacted with in these three years on one hand. And, so with only minor teaching on how to speak to patients, we were let loose on the wards in a ‘learn on the job’ kind of manner. In hindsight, this was a great way to learn but also a very daunting process at the time.
I recall one of my first encounters with a patient. Another medical student and I were going round a ward, practising taking histories on particular patients. We came to one patient who seemed very coy about his time in hospital. Delving a little deeper, we unearthed the underlying problem; he had recently been having suicidal thoughts. The few hours training we had had previously did not prepare us for this.
I vividly recall the silence between the three of us as the patient explained his situation.
What was the protocol of discussing such matters with another human being. I knew how to dissect a lab rat, but nothing had prepared me for this. And that is where being human took over. We carefully asked him open questions about his feelings and why he was having these thoughts. We were able to unearth all of his issues and try to allow him to suggest solutions to these problems. We sat with that patient for an hour, trying to understand the situation that he found himself in. I am unsure just how much we helped that patient that day, but one thing I am certain of is that we left him in a happier way than when we initially saw him. Knowing that we had done that, for me, was much more important than all 3 years of pre-clinical study put together.
This was why I did it.
It was at this point that I realised why I was in this profession. All the studying, all the books we read, all the lectures we attend, all the exams we sit, what is it all for? We do this so that eventually we will be able to make a difference to people’s lives, which truly is something remarkable.