I walked onto the ward, guided by a consultant who was my educational supervisor for that placement. Immediately, though I was wearing a prominent lanyard alerting those around me of my identity as a second-year medical student, I felt that I did not belong here.
Everyone around me was so busy, they barely gave me a second glance. To them, I was just another student, who they were very used to seeing; to me, this was a whole new world. I was not accustomed to the hospital environment. Telephones ringing, alarms beeping, drip-stands making alarmingly serious-sounding noises – it was very intimidating for me.
The consultant introduced me to the ward staff, informing them that I was a brand new medical student and that I was here to have a chat with one of the patients on the ward. The nurses were very welcoming and told me that if I ever needed anything, all I had to do with ask.
This went a long way to reassuring me, and the feeling of being in the way did not take long to improve. I can’t say it ever fully disappeared – feeling in the way is a chronic condition amongst medical students – but with time, you grow in confidence and remember that you are supposed to be there. How else would you learn how to be a doctor?
I was led to the patient by the consultant, who introduced me once again. She then explained that if he did not mind, I was there to have a chat with him about why he was in hospital, as part of my training. The patient, a remarkably nimble 100-year old gentleman, was delighted and told me to take a seat. The consultant left and said she would come and check on me in 20 minutes. I felt like a young child saying goodbye to my mother on my first day of school.
The first thing I noted about my patient was that he was absolutely delightful. The second was that he was absolutely stone-deaf. This made communication somewhat difficult, especially when his hearing aid fell out halfway through. I tried to ask the questions I had learnt – confirming his identity and then asking him why he was in hospital.
However, I did not get much further than that, as he started chatting to me about various unrelated things, including yesterday’s dinner and the patient next door’s constipation. Whether the two were linked, I’m not quite certain. In all honesty, I felt that my first patient encounter had not gone too well, and I felt worried about feeding this back to the consultant.
When she came back, the consultant thanked the patient profusely for his time. He told her it had been a pleasure meeting me, which put a smile on my face, to which she replied that I would never forget him, as he was my first ever patient. His response was, of course: “what did you say, love?”
We sat down to reflect on how it had gone. I told her that it did not go too well as I was not able to get the information that I needed from the patient. Furthermore, I had been too nervous to examine him, as my previous practice had been only on other students, and I felt worried I would cause him discomfort. To my immense relief, she told me that this was completely normal.
She explained that it was not my fault it had been difficult and that doctors also struggle to communicate with patients sometimes. The skill, she informed me, is patience, empathy and understanding.
She also reassured me that it was normal to be anxious about examining patients, but not to worry, as patients are not as fragile as they seem. Everything comes with time and practice. She was completely right of course. Within a matter of weeks, I was far more confident taking medical histories and examining patients, and the learning curve continues to this very day.
My main piece of advice to new medical students would be: don’t worry if seeing patients makes you feel nervous. You’re there to learn, and no one expects you to be perfect from the beginning.
It gets easier with time, and in fact, speaking to patients is my favourite part of being a medical student. The great thing about not being a doctor is that you have far more time to listen, which can be just as comforting to the patient as the pain relief they are prescribed.
It truly is a privilege to have patients open up a small part of their lives to you, and to know that you are training to be able to help people like them in the future.
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