My summer life lessons
JUNE 5 — In the midst of the seriousness and stress of exams and the anticipation of finding out the results, one looks forward to the small things that help you unwind. For me, it is reflecting on the small things which happen every day in my life.
Sitting down with a cup of coffee (cold instead of hot thanks to this kind weather in London), I reflected on this whole year of clinical placements at hospitals, which is a major part of my medical school education. Meeting and talking to a wide variety of patients from a huge diversity of social backgrounds gave me much to think about. But when looked at holistically and in retrospect, these encounters imparted a lesson or two about life which no books or lecturers can teach.
Lesson 1: Everyone is a raw book
I have never been admitted to hospital, so I previously could not fully empathise with those who are in that situation. Some have told me that they remember the boredom of waiting more than the illness they were having at that time. But after this one year, I can say for sure that for many patients, including those who just found out they have a serious condition, feel bored and cannot wait to get home.
And because of this, talking to a patient in a ward, even if you are a shy medical student, is never a problem as most patients are very eager to talk to anyone, especially medical personnel.
And through one year of talking to these eager patients, I have come to realise that everyone has something to share. Be it a drug addict, an old man with memory problems, a young girl who is just about to start school and even your typical middle-aged adult — everyone is a raw book.
I consider myself friendly (notwithstanding the odd moment or two); I enjoy a chat with anyone around me. However, my time at clinical placements has illuminated to me the importance of being friendly and being open to striking up a conversation with strangers, because anyone, even the worse crook you could imagine, can teach you a lesson.
Lesson 2: There are still some sensible people around
During the British local election, you could sense that everyone was a Labour supporter. Talks of austerity cuts in the UK, which many argue went too far, abound. And synonymous to this is the NHS reform that the coalition government has proposed, which is also facing many stumbling blocks.
You can imagine that if you are sick, and you are warded in an NHS hospital (which although tends to not be hugely focussed on being comfortable, is still adequately equipped), you would be among the many who will feel angry about the deep austerity cuts and NHS reform.
Therefore, I initially tried my best to refrain from asking about this when I talked to any patient leisurely.
However, this “taboo” topic always ends up being talked about and more surprisingly, almost all of the time, the patients understand the need for the cuts and the need for NHS reforms. I never get any whining, Tory-hating patients nor did I get conservative, Labour-hating patients. Most consider themselves independent, yet adopt a very sensible attitude towards the current political climate in the UK.
As I was based in East London — not the most posh of London neighbourhoods — I found this even more interesting.
Lesson 3: Doubt your own doubt
It is routine for medical student to talk to a patient to gather their medical history and then present it to a more senior doctor. After five months of doing this, I became quite adept at it, and even had my own style of presentation.
Most common complaints that my fellow medical students and myself received with regards to our presentation was the use of phrase, “the patient says”, “the patient claims”, and “the patient thinks” which I thought were perfectly reasonable choice of words.
A fine senior doctor explained why we should not use those phrases. “Don’t doubt the patient, no matter who they are. They might be lying, they may not, but your job is to trust them until they are proven wrong.” At the time, I was presenting the case of a known drug addict who had been repeatedly warded due to drug overdose.
He added: “That should be your life principle too, no matter how sceptical you are.”
It is indeed interesting to reflect upon the life lessons one can pick up while learning to save lives.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.