We had finished the OR list early that day, and I’d run to the university library to find some books. As I was walking towards the check-out desk, I tripped over my own feet (typical me), scattering the books everywhere. A boy nearby helped me collect what I now realised was an excessively large number of books, even for me. My cheeks were burning as I accepted the few he passed my way. Maybe next time I’d only take as many books as I could safely carry.
“Are you a medical student?” he asked me. The question was polite; I supposed it was obvious. The medical scrubs, the messy hair that had been in-and-out of caps all day, the ID badge hanging around my neck, the stethoscope in my pocket. Not to mention the first book in my stack was titled The Complete Review of Orthopaedics, Sixth Edition.
“Yes,” I said, suddenly feeling my energy drain. Why was I so tired? I’d only worked nine hours that day, and I hadn’t been on call last night. “Yes, I am.”
“Wow,” said the boy. “And you go to the regional campus? The McMaster one?”
“Yes,” I said. If I checked these three books out, I could probably cram them all into my bag, which meant that I could carry these two back to the car, which would leave my left hand free to grab the keys. Yes, that could work.
“Wow,” said the boy again. “That’s so cool.” He was looking at me with a mixed awe, respect, fear, and admiration that I reserved for my mother, Taylor Swift, and one particular surgeon who’d never shouted at me once during the four weeks I’d worked with her.
What a silly boy. I was just a medical student. He’d probably done more impressive things with his life than I had.
Thinking that our conversation was over, I continued walking to the circulation desk. But the boy followed me. “I want to go to med school,” he said. “I think I want to be a surgeon, maybe. Or a psychiatrist. Have you done any psychiatry? What’s it like?”
“It’s interesting,” I said, glancing at the clock. Five-fifteen. If I could get home before six, eat and change before six-thirty, maybe I could get a chapter or two in of reading before I fell asleep at my desk. Maybe.
“Wow,” said the boy. “I’ve never met a real med student before. This is so cool. It’s such an honour to meet you.” Why was he looking at me like that? I was just a medical student. Always in the way, never knowing enough. The bottom of the totem pole. Just today, three doctors had been arguing about who’d be stuck with me tomorrow. They ended up pulling straws. The unlucky winner had already warned me twice not to touch his drugs. Or his tools. Or his stool. Or the door.
“You must be so smart,” said the boy. “To get into a Canadian med school and all.”
“Mmmm…” I said, as I started to check out the books. Smart? Me? Last week alone, four separate people (three of them nurses) had called me stupid. The other was a John Doe I’d bumped into in the carpark after a fifteen-hour shift so exhausting I could barely stand.
“Can I shake your hand?” said the boy. “Please?”
“Shake my hand?” I said. What an odd request. “I guess…?”
“Oh, thanks! Oh, wow! Oh, you’re so nice! Oh, geez, I hope I get to be a med student just like you one day.”
Just like me? Why would anyone want to do this? Was I ever like this rambling pre-med, so bushy-tailed and starry-eyed? I looked at the books in front of me, remembering the first time I’d seen someone with scrubs and a coloured backpack walking around the library. I’d hidden behind the bookshelves and watched, my mouth hanging open. When we were undergrads, the medical students were our idols. They were gods. I’d never have dared to speak to a medical student before I became one. This boy had gumption to come over and speak to me. It must have been because I dropped my books; somehow, that had made me more approachable. More human.
But being a medical student was nothing to be proud of. We do nothing useful, as we’re often reminded. We’re just ripening crop, sitting tight until the day that we can add our contributions to the system which raised us. Yesterday, one of my classmates was in tears because the surgeon she was courting for a reference letter told her that she would be a terrible surgeon, or a terrible doctor, really, regardless of what she went into. This morning, a different classmate was told by three separate families not to touch their children because they wanted the ‘real’ doctor; later, the ‘real’ doctor reprimanded her for not acting more ‘confident’ and ‘inspiring trust’. These are not isolated incidents; they are our lives. Every week, at least one of us is ridiculed, bullied, or derided. There’s nothing to be done about it; it’s the nature of the system. Throw a group of untrained, unqualified children into one of the most stressful and high-stakes environments in the world, and you’re virtually guaranteed to form a strict and (frankly) tyrannical hierarchy. It’s a wonder there aren’t more tears than there are now. We’re useless in the face of the dying, the grieving, the suffering. We don’t belong in hospitals. We don’t belong anywhere.