Try as I might, I am pretty sure that I won’t ever be able to forget my first day on the wards as a third year medical student. A professor the year before once said, “Few things are more anxiety provoking than your first day in the hospital.” As a new “short coat” I agreed. (You’re not allowed to wear the long white coat until you’re a doctor. It is the shameful mark of the newbie medical student.) A lot of med students that I’ve known over the years have a certain swagger or cockiness and I can’t ever figure out how that happens. It certainly isn’t natural. It is, at best, whistling in the dark.
That first day, I walked into Tampa General at 5 a.m. with instructions from the night before to “pre-round” (I didn’t know what that meant) on all the gynecology surgery inpatients. After asking various security guards, janitors, and patients in the hallways, I found floor 7A. I’d been taught in the classroom how to write a progress note on a patient, but I was confronted with problems I wasn’t expecting. For one, all these patients are asleep. Do I go around and wake them up? Well that seems rude. And how do I take everyone’s temperature? Should I have brought my own thermometer? Why do I have to wear this ridiculous short white coat? It was a long two hours.
After the residents got there (they are the ones that are now doctors, but are still in training in a specific specialty), they mocked me and helped me – and that was pretty much the repeated theme over the next two years. During that period of time, imperceptibly, a medical student becomes competent and then if they’re lucky, really good at being a doctor.
A mentor of mine, Dr. John McCutchen, gave me some words of wisdom before medical school. He said that one of the interesting things in medicine is that you don’t know enough to be sure you are making the right career decisions until after you’ve had to make them. No one knows if they’ll be a good doctor until they are three years down the road of medical school. And then you have to make a decision on your specialty based on very little involvement in it as a third year. It is amazing that things end up working out so well as often as they do. I agreed at the time even though I had no basis to know if it was true or not. Ten years later, I agree still.