human behavior

Last days

Posted in Health & Medicine, Race & Ethnicity, Sydney, The Expatriate Life by humanb on November 24, 2010

After five long years, yesterday was the last day of medical school.

And today is just a Thursday.

It was all rather anticlimactic in the end. I spent five years socially unhappy as a black American in her 30’s among a cohort of Australian fresh-out-of-high-schoolers. I was sick of school before I even started the program. This was my 3rd degree. That’s not a boast, but an admission of my fear and insecurity about entering the adult world of grueling work days and heady responsibility. I spent every semester not certain that I’d pass it. I was plagued with doubts about my older brain’s ability to keep up with the best and brightest of Sydney. And let’s be honest, most of the kids in this program were Asian, and after growing up with American stereotypes seared into my subconscious, I was convinced that every kid named Grace, Wu or Apresh was going to wipe the floor with me in class.

In the end, I graduated with much higher than average marks. Oddly enough, I think it was precisely due to my being an imported, 30-something year-old oddity. I had no parents to please, no burden of expectation, and no campus social life to distract me. Already married, I had no boy troubles. Already degreed, I had made all my college mistakes and had already done to death the all-nighter, so I was over it. Anything less than 7 hours of sleep was unacceptable. Of a different generation, my approach to doctors was one of easy and comfortable deference, but friendliness and self confidence. They were just people, after all, and many of them not much older than me. So I stood out for my supposed “maturity”. Of course, my being the lone black American made it inevitable anyway.

Looking back, it was not an academically difficult enterprise, medical school, and it was actually less work than I was expecting. But it was grueling nonetheless. There was no joy. I couldn’t see the end of it. It seemed to take forever.

And then yesterday it seemed to end quite suddenly and without fanfare.

Few students showed up to my hospital this last week, and to the doctors with whom I had been working for only a few weeks, Wednesday was no different from the day before. They’re used to students and junior doctors changing every 8-10 weeks and patients changing more frequently than that. I may have stood out, but I wouldn’t stay in their thoughts after I’d said good-bye.

At least there were moments to mark the occasion…

My crush – a doctor with whom I had done a rotation – cornered me at one point in a room where I sat alone. He maintained one of his famous penetrating stares and enquired about my future and my exam marks. He told me repeatedly that I was a great student and that others had said as much. (Ooh, that means he asked about me…). He gave me small, awkward smiles and I blushed. With any other doctor I would have given them a bright smile and a bone-crushing hand shake in good-bye, but he made me still and shy. It was a special moment at the end of an era. Sweet and tense.

And the doctor with whom I had been working, who I suspected found me brusque in that way Americans seem to be, had surprisingly kind words for me.

You know I’ve seen a lot of students, interns and registrars come and go. There are those that try to do as little work as possible, and there are those that really take responsibility for their patients. I know you’re going to be in the latter group.

I gave her a big, bright smile and a bone-crushing handshake.

And perhaps to reinforce her faith in me, minutes later a woman approached me that I had met briefly 8 months ago. We had engaged in some chit-chat then. I wasn’t sure what her role was in the hospital. She approached me for help. She had a patient in the psychiatric ward who needed an intravenous line (cannula), and there was no one on the psych ward to do it, as the patient refused to let the sole male doctor who could, complete the task. I found it curious that she would ask me on a medical ward full of doctors, but I went happily. I’m sure my supervisor and our team found it just as curious.

When I arrived on the psych ward, I was told I had to insert the cannula in the busy lunch room where the patient was seated beside other patients and grumbling about another woman’s failed attempt to cannulate him. He was emaciated, with mobile veins that eluded needles and he was very disagreeable to getting poked again. After I inserted the needle and didn’t get a sense that I was in the vein, he began shouting that I didn’t know what I was doing and that he wouldn’t tolerate it anymore.

Who is this girl? She hasn’t a clue what she’s doing! Take it out damn it! Take it out!

It’s alright sir. She’s an expert. This happens. Just one more try, the woman said.

One more try and then that’s it! You go away! No more!

I inserted the cannula on the second go, smoothly and with skill and confidence that eluded me even one year ago. I thanked the man for his patience and I was thanked profusely in turn by the woman and other staff on the psych ward. And as the woman hadn’t been familiar with our brand of cannula (having come from London), I opened up a second cannula to show her how they worked. She was grateful.

When I returned to my team, I explained that I had went with a woman to cannulate a patient, and one of the doctors on the team said:

Yes, that was Dr. Demint [name changed].

Who? I asked.

The head of the Psych Department.


And she had asked me for help. And she had welcomed my instruction on our equipment. And she had entrusted me with a task where had I failed, the patient would have refused any future attempts to his own detriment.

That made the last five years kinda worth the pain.

And her humility and willingness to seek the help of a medical student didn’t inflate my ego. It humbled me. I saw so clearly then that doctors do best by their patients when they know their own limitations, when they seek help, when they put faith in each other. When they check their egos at the door. When they’re a team.

And now I’m a member.

For a brief moment I felt like part of something bigger than my own life. I was no longer an oddity here. I fitted in. I was a cog in a machine of good intentions and service. I was a doctor in the making.

And then I took the hour-long drive home for the last time. Went to the local movie theatre. Bought a beer and a bag of sweet chili chips and watched the latest Harry Potter. Went to bed and woke up this morning to just another Thursday.

Already my memories of the last five years are fading. When I start working at a new hospital in January, I won’t remember how I know the things I do. I’ll feel as if I’ve always known them. And I’ll be too busy stressing over the multitude of things I don’t know and have to learn fast because a patient’s life is on the line.

How is it that the last five years of my life could be fading so fast? It must have something to do with my 30-something year-old brain. I don’t hold on to things very well. I keep only the fleeting emotions connected to periods of my life, little more.

So today doesn’t feel at all like the first day of the rest of my life, or the end of an era.

It feels like Thursday.

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7 Responses

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  1. Bridgedawg said, on November 24, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    Beautiful, one of your bests. Just think, tomorrow won’t be just another Friday, Condores will be there.

  2. Myer said, on November 24, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Congrats!! You’re never an oddity you’re exactly who and where you’re supposed to be! I am so proud n wish I could be there! Love ya to bunches!

    • humanb said, on November 24, 2010 at 8:18 pm

      Love you too. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Touch2Touch said, on November 24, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    “It feels like Thursday.”
    I know it’s an anticlimax, but honestly, that’s how it’s supposed to feel. And be. It IS the next day of the rest of your life; every day is. And you’re well on your way. Maturity is good! Confidence is good! Humility is good! Equanimity is good! (See Sir William Osler)
    Hey, so are you. REALLY good.
    Congratulations. J

    • humanb said, on November 24, 2010 at 8:19 pm

      Thank you. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Earl said, on November 27, 2010 at 10:48 am

    You were, are and always will be an awesome individual. I am happy to be included in your family. Your writing is informative yet inspirational. I have never been surprised of your abilities. Every day is just another day. It is you who makes it special and new.

    • humanb said, on November 30, 2010 at 3:05 am

      Thank you. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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