First of all I learned that without a doubt, my family is what fills my days with happiness. I was expecting to miss them, but I thought the distraction of school would drown out the worst of the aches. I was wrong. My boundless ability to remove myself from my emotions in order to focus on the task at hand found its bounds after all. I have never been so homesick.
This came with unexpected insight. If I had battled through my first semester at home I think it would have been difficult NOT to feel as if there were a competition for my time. I may have resented the competition. Now I know better. Medical school is stimulating and exhilarating in many ways, but it is not (in any way) what I need to be happy.
Secondly I learned that medicine is about safe places.
I wasn’t sure how I would deal with the issue of ‘healing’ people. People and illness are complex and sometimes illness is more easily addressed than hurt. How do you deal with this as a physician? My most thought-provoking interaction of the semester was with a volunteer patient I interviewed in front of several of my peers. She was positive and enthusiastic and eager to help us practise. We had a wonderful dialogue and during the course of the interview she shared with me intensely personal details of her past – details that were not required for this interview – details of a very troubled family life that was without a doubt the root of many of her health problems. When she left the room my fellow students, the tutor and myself were silent for a moment. She had demonstrated extraordinary vulnerability.
I considered this interaction for days. Illness needs a physician but hurt needs a counsellor and reality says that I will not be setting up a counselling office. I thought about the kind of medicine that appeals to me. I love stories of the emergency room and street people and third-world medicine. And yet, I also love making connections with people like the woman I interviewed – a woman who could be any woman.
And I realized…I love the ‘safe place’ that medicine provides. Stories of third world medicine are stories of hope for a safe place. Emergency room medicine is that same story. And when this beautiful woman opened up to us in ways that were not required, it was because in that moment she had found a safe place, and in some way that was a moment we had both been looking for.