A Message to First-Year Medical Students: We first must care for ourselves
By Rachel Conrad
September 5th, 2014
(Editor’s Note: This speech was given at the 2014 White Coat Ceremony for the Baylor College of Medicine first-year class)
During my first month on clinical rotations, I was sent to examine an adolescent boy. The boy said he was fine so I reported back to my team that all was well. After my large team filed into the patient’s small exam room, our attending asked the patient to remove his baggy hoodie. When the boy removed his hoodie, this revealed a visibly broken arm. The residents sincerely tried to suppress their laughter as my sense of failure overtook me and I prayed to disappear. The average 7-year old could have assessed this patient more accurately than I did. I will never again believe an adolescent boy who say he is “fine”, I will also always ask patients to remove baggy hoodies.
To become extraordinary physicians, we must learn to thank our mistakes, for they are the greatest teachers. The experiences that we resist most can become our greatest assets. By embracing our struggles and looking deeply at our wounds, we forge characteristics that make us each uniquely powerful in our impact on patients. Great healers are distinguished by a capacity to find grace and growth in the midst of pain and confusion. In the alchemy of our failures, our weaknesses as humans transform into our greatest assets as doctors.
To best care for our patients, we must first learn to care for ourselves. In a sense, we are each our own first patient. I am not alluding to the hypochondriac panic that universally plagues first-year medical students. I mean that we must practice the gentleness and compassion with ourselves today that we hope to extend to the patients whom we will touch in the future. The courage to be fully present to the suffering of our patients, to enter fellowship inside their pain and to willingly confront the tragedies of human life demands incredible self-compassion and self-care.
We each have unique experiences of spiritual, intellectual and physical nourishment. We may find spiritual solace in a church, mosque, or temple. Our intellectual stimulation may be sought in poetry or politics. Our physically rejuvenation may be found in CrossFit or yoga. In unique ways, we create a life that cultivates our body, mind and spirit so that we may share a bounty of peace with those in need.
Ayn Rand lied; one person cannot build a skyscraper; we can’t become extraordinary by ourselves. We need each other to help us find grace and compassion in dark moments. Throughout medical school, an array of individuals have supported me: Aides made me coffee and opened doors when I forgot the code day after day. Mentors told me that being myself was enough. Patients taught and encouraged me everyday. Meditation teachers showed me how to develop self-compassion. Classmates ate breakfast tacos with me in the basement while we laughed or cried together. Build a web of mentors and friends who will help you define your extraordinary.
Envision the doctor you hope to be in 4 years. None of us will be DeBakey but we each have the privilege of developing into our own version of a ground-breaking physician. We each have an opportunity to challenge the limits of modern medicine. Today, you take your first step on a journey to discover your inner DeBakey. You are the only one who can bring your unique combination of experiences, personality, and talents to the field of medicine. When you find yourself alone with a patient who is experiencing tragedy, draw on the compassion and hope inside you today, that is the best possible treatment for their suffering.
We each confront cycles of struggle and success interspersed with moments of connection. We may feel burned out until we eventually reconnect to our humanity and regain a stronger sense of our purpose. Months of neuroscience may feel like a prolonged game of Settlers of Catan until the day you meet a patient with a brain tumor and can piece together their impairments based on the tumor’s location.
Each of our journeys has ebbs and flows. As we gradually accumulate moments of enlightenment and empowerment, the seed of the healer inside each of us slowly grows, then flourishes, and eventually transforms us into the extraordinary physician whom we envisioned.
Congratulations to the Class of 2018. I look forward to seeing you stain your White Coats, get lost in the hospitals, bring joy to your families, humor to your colleagues, healing to the sick, humanity to the suffering, and inspiration to the field of medicine.
You will transform into extraordinary physicians.
Rachel Conrad is a 4th year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX. She is applying to residency in psychiatry.