Look at that. Look at what you ask? I’m on the other side – the “it’s finished” side – of my first organ system module of medical school. Cardio = Completed. Phew.
It felt a bit like a marathon, and having actually raced a few of those, I don’t use the analogy lightly. Six weeks of actual material plus a two week intermission for Christmas break. Well, intermission probably isn’t the right word since I spent an embarrassing amount of those two weeks at home trying to figure out exactly what it was the heart did and how. The cliff notes version of my learning: it pumps blood. And that’s really important.
Yea, okay, I say that a bit tongue-in-cheek, but seeing as it’s still my self proclaimed “be a real person” post-exam weekend, I have zero intention of talking science — even though I have to admit, it is pretty cool science. It’s also pretty cool to be really getting into the nitty gritty of medical school, learning about the organs and systems that allow our remarkable human bodies to do the countless tasks they perform each and everyday.
I think about that a lot, honestly probably a lot more than I should — just the way our bodies are fashioned together with these complex and seemingly disparate units that ultimately rely on each other in order to do, well, practically anything. The more pathology I learn about ways things could and do go wrong, the more I realize how impressive a feat is to be alive and functional for any human being. In my world, and considering the size of that injury causing dead tree, I consider it nothing short of a miracle.
Beyond learning about the physiology and pathology that make up the organ system our module is devoted to, there’s a clinical component where we delve into the real world of patient examination and diagnosis. Now I’ve worked with patients quite a few times since starting med school. For example, there have been patient interviews in the hospital, I attend a clinic every other week where I work with an attending physician, and I also have sessions with standardized patients in the CEC (Continuing Education Center).
Now standardized patients are extremely talented actors based in the Chicagoland area that portray various cases/characters in order to allow us clueless medical students to make awkward and embarrassing mistakes with them instead of actual people seeking care. Thus far, we’ve pretty much just been practicing how to talk. Now that sounds really dumb (and it felt really dumb to type), but it’s also really important. After all, how many times have you or someone you know gone to the doctor’s office and felt like you weren’t listened to? Or you complained to a friend about a physician’s terrible bedside manner? Needless to say, I’m extremely grateful to attend a school with a curriculum that has a big emphasis on communication skills. Plus, I like to talk — just ask my Mom.
But organ system modules, now these guys are different. While talking is certainly still important, there is a significant amount of information to be gleaned from a physical, tactile examination.
Now let us pause, and think about this junction to which we have found ourselves.
You’re a first year medical student. The most you’ve done examination wise is take (more or less) accurate blood pressures. But now here you are, in an examination room, sitting before a standardized patient you just met moments ago and can no longer remember their first name (even though they definitely told it to you). They’re seated on the examination table, wearing only underwear and a gown and pleasantly looking at you, expectantly awaiting you to perform a cardiac exam.
It can feel a bit intimidating (read: terrifying).
Medicine is so unique, I mean, the experiences it brings into your life are ones that consistently defy social norms. After all, when is the last time you asked a person you just met to lie back and lower their gown so you can feel along their chest wall for any “thrills” (basically vibrations in your fingertips) that could signify a heart murmur.
It’s a very different world. In medicine, touch isn’t frowned upon. It isn’t something that’s weird or strange. It’s not only accepted, but it’s expected. And that is no small thing. The level of trust that patients bestow on us as physicians and physicians-to-be speaks more than I could every verbalize and it’s something I’m still trying to come to terms with.
Each time I roll into a new exam room and introduce myself to another patient, I’m reminded of the profound privilege it is to be allowed into such intimate and personal aspects of an individual’s life.
Needless to say, that’s a reminder I hope to never forget.