Pursuing a career in healthcare is a huge privilege. For a subject that comes so close to the surface of humanity, there is far more to be learned from lived experience as opposed to the textbooks.
On the medical course you will find a variety of patients; some who will tell you about how well behaved their dog is, and some will look you in the eye and say 'no' to any past medical history whilst being on a bible of medications. Yet amongst all the dialogue there will be priceless encounters that will resonate with you for a long time.
As I arrive at my final year of medical school, I gather and reflect on some valuable lessons I will treasure for life - despite being a mere twenty-two years of age.
Lesson #1 : Life isn't meant to be easy.
As someone who has an immediate family member with a chronic illness, I already had some understanding of the impact of poor health before entering medical school. My previous ‘normal’ became something so different.
It meant living with uncertainty. Heightened levels of responsibility. The heavy weight to hold in one's head. I would find myself in this repetitive habit of thinking, 'why is my life so difficult?', and it was only when I started to see patients (thanks to Norwich Medical School’s early patient contact) that my attitude changed.
I've now probably seen a few hundred patients so far, and each person came in with their own unique problem(s); heart, lungs, bowels, nerves... all with their implications on that person's life. Someone had to prick their finger around three times a day - every single day - just to check their blood sugar is in control. Another person needed dialysis four times a week just to cleanse their body from waste and toxins, whilst likely to feel very awful in between those sessions. I try to imagine how life-changing it would be to have any of these conditions. I can’t remember the last time I had to think about how my pancreas or kidneys were doing, and I’m very grateful.
From these encounters, I recognised that I didn’t have the same problems as these patients, but I did realise what we all had in common. Whilst the word 'cancer' would ring in my head most of the time, it may be 'asthma', 'Crohn's', or 'psoriasis' for someone else. This reminded me of a quote I read somewhere, probably on Twitter, that illustrates this point:
"For you is your mountain, for them is theirs"
We consider our problems relative to what we have lived through. People can only assess how bad something is relative to their lived experiences, which forms their paradigm - the lens through which they view the world.
Speaking to patients every week at a general practice and hospital helped me to reshape my way of thinking. Rather than constantly seeing myself as a victim, I saw it as a worldly issue that everyone is facing, each morphed in their own particular way.
Which brings me onto the next point...
Lesson #2 : You can't change reality, so change what you can control.
I suppose this is a principle adopted in medical practice too. Some conditions are incurable, but it wouldn’t make sense to sit and do nothing about it. So we try to manage the symptoms so that patients can at least live more comfortably. A concept that we can transfer to our everyday lives.
I saw a patient with a colostomy during my gastroenterology rotation, who came in to talk to us (medical students) about her experience of living with a stoma bag - and it was one of the most positive interactions I've ever encountered.
For background - a stoma is formed after a surgical operation to remove a section of the patient’s intestines due to its disease (e.g. cancer or inflammatory bowel disease). Because the intestine is now shorter and can’t make it all the way down, a small opening is created on the surface of the patient's abdomen, which connects the remaining healthy intestine to the outside world and releases waste into a bag attached to the skin.
Understandably, there surrounds a huge stigma to having a stoma. From the daily routine and its upkeep, to body confidence and intimacy… It is surely a difficult change to accomodate, but this patient’s mindset threw me by surprise.
Having this stoma brought her more than it took away. It was an end to unbearable and excruciating pain, and she could finally go anywhere without having to quest for the nearest bathroom. She befriended her stoma - quite literally - who she named “Mike". There, she radiated this great sense of empowerment, despite knowing how differently she lived to even the closest people around her. She created her own normality.
I went on to see this mindset in many more patients - they didn't dwell; they accepted. They accepted that, at some point in life, we would all suffer in some way or another, and that's the way life goes. That’s not to say we shouldn’t experience sadness or anger - we are humans after all (a friendly reminder of the Kubler-Ross ‘Stages of Grief’ model) - but it would be ineffective and damaging for us to harbour these feelings for too long. The sooner we can accept, the sooner we can focus on the next best thing, and the better version of ourselves we can become. I learned that, if we came to a halt every time a bad event occurred or a negative thought entered our minds, we would never be able to breathe peacefully again.