This is a letter to everyone who has ever smiled, shrugged their shoulders, or nodded while either hesitantly or enthusiastically uttering the words, “Yes,” “Sure,” “OK,” “I guess so,” or, “Of course,” when a medical student has asked if he or she can talk to and examine you before your doctor comes in. We know that you are busy and that your time has value. We know that you have every right to decline, and it is ok with us if you do.
However, we are grateful to those of you who let us into your lives — even if only for a few minutes. We love hearing about your recent trip to the beach, your first day at your new job, and your opinion of the pumpkin craze that happens every fall. You entrust us with details of your lives that you would not tell anyone else. You generously allow us to be present when life begins and when it ends.
In the time we spend together, you teach us things that a textbook cannot. We may know how a disease affects the human body, but you live with the conditions that we read about. Words on a page will never do your experiences justice. Books do not tell us about how mundane tasks like opening a jar of peanut butter become a struggle for arthritic hands. They do not tell us about how you get up earlier in the morning than your friends do so that you can put on a vest to help clear your lungs because you have cystic fibrosis. They leave out any mention of how your chronic disease has a ripple effect that extends to your family, your friends, and even your community. If you ceased to share your stories with us, we would never learn some of the most important things about the art of medicine.
Medicine is complex, and we also must practice our skills many times to become proficient. You may watch us as we fumble with an otoscope the first few times we do ear exams, as we use an incorrectly sized blood pressure cuff, or as we realize a minute too late that we should have gotten a piece of tape ready to go before we started your IV. We try our very best, but we are still learning. Sometimes, you offer words of encouragement, telling us that we are doing a good job and wishing us luck with our studies. We appreciate your understanding as well as your kind words.
On behalf of all of us, thank you. You may not realize it, but you give us something that we can never repay you for: you make us better doctors.
Marcie Costello is a medical student.
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