MOST doctors remember the mature-aged student in medical school — the faint whiff of desperation and the “hip” outfit that’s just a little too carefully put together.
They are the ones primed, trembling hand anticipating the lecturer’s next question. “You mean you actually did the pre-reading?” How lame.
With seeming inevitability I’ve become what I once despised.
As a medical student beginning my third year, and with my 30th birthday looming, I’m left to ponder the view from the other side. And, mostly, I like it.
As the world of medicine has begun to hungrily swallow me up I’m so glad to have had a life before it.
But my advancing age does have its drawbacks, and chief among them is anxiety surrounding the future.
I’ve begun to anticipate pitfalls and prepare for disasters because I’m too aware of my weaknesses and limitations, in a way I wasn’t as a younger man. And though I’m confident I can handle them for now, I’m concerned that might change.
I observe the doctors I meet for clues to my own future. The happy and enthusiastic ones offer me hope, but I’m still troubled, worried I won’t turn out as they have. Perhaps, instead — like some I have met — I’ll come to resent a career that asks so much of me.
If I’m motivated to be excellent now, it’s surely because that motivation remains untested. How will I respond, at the end of a long shift, lacking in sleep, burdened with a personal problem, to the challenge posed by a difficult patient?
Now multiply that scenario by a hundred, or a thousand times. I’m no saint. I might have once said my greatest ambition in medicine was to help others, but talk is cheap and people change.
These questions have gnawed at me. Acknowledging the potential for failure isn’t easy and medical students, in particular, seem averse to it. There’s just too much riding on the choices we’ve made.
I recently found comfort in the pages of a book — Atul Gawande’s excellent Being mortal.
In it, Gawande discusses one of his patients, a retired geriatrician living in an aged care home: what buoyed him, despite his limitations, was having a purpose … to be of service, in some way, to those around him.
These words resonated and stirred memories of the years I spent working in restaurants as a waiter. These were times when I lived and breathed a service ethic, driven by a desire to please and a tendency towards perfectionism.
I’ll never forget being told by a customer in an upmarket London restaurant that he’d never had such excellent service.
Medicine isn’t so different. The stakes may be higher but it remains, at heart, a service industry.
Service — not a word that conjures glamour or greatness. Yet it retains a quiet, modest dignity, an ideal to strive towards. I once regularly overcame hangovers, tedium, hunger, rudeness, even a full bladder in pursuit of it. If it sustained me once it might do so again.
I’ve been looking long and hard for a compass to help navigate a way through the many difficult years ahead.
In a life of service, I’m finally hoping — and tentatively believing — I may have found one.
James Dando is a medical student in Queensland.