Five Reminders for Medical School From Five Geriatric Patients

By Michelle Lee

I spent 2 years working in a nursing home before medical school. My days were spent feeding, toileting, and bathing—but, most of all, providing companionship to—all the residents there. All their individual stories stick with me, and I still think of them often even though many have passed on now. They continue to inspire my ideas for the future and guide my medical journey thorough the life lessons I've learned from them. Below are some of these lessons, along with anecdotes of the wise ones who taught me.

1. Get involved, even if you may feel inadequate.

T insisted on being there at every staff meeting. I doubt she caught a shred of the information we discussed in any of those meetings, as evidenced by her habitual snoring and drowsy head-bobbing once we started talking; however, she was always present. Her unwavering engagement in causes important to her despite the fact that she may not have been the most qualified is something I think about when I feel inadequate. This feeling is common when you're among such high-achieving peers, but don't be afraid to put yourself out there and ask for those opportunities. Not everything will go perfectly your way. Yet, with perseverance and passion, you can make the most of it and get to where you want to be.

2. Have a routine and stick to it.

Everyone knew—and D would never let anyone forget—that 3:00 p.m. was her wine time. I worked evenings, with most of my shifts starting the same way. I would get her wine (chilled pinot grigio), and we would do the daily crossword together. We were an unbeatable team, she all-knowing about Carol Burnett and me “The Simpsons.” I cherished these 30 minutes, because they served as a time to collect myself before the daily hustle of getting everyone ready for dinner. In medical school, it is important to make a schedule for studying. However, we also need to make time for things that rejuvenate us. So, plan time for calling friends and family, cooking your favorite foods, binging the latest shows, or doing whatever your feel-good activity may be.

3. Take care of those in need.

B was quite a boisterous fellow. From his food to the carpet color, it was never hard to guess what he thought. Though opinionated and outspoken, he had a very kind heart. We would often find him taking the prohibited back door to feed the birds. “They look too skinny,” he claimed. One night, another resident started looking very lethargic after dinner. The other caregivers and I were going about our everyday routine (usually helping those who were more vocal about going back to their rooms first) and hadn't noticed the change. It was B who brought it to our attention and would not let us forget about that resident until we had helped her to bed. She was hospitalized for a UTI the next day. Similarly, in medical school, we are all on a difficult, long journey together. Everyone will have their own struggles, and by pulling each other up in times of need, the journey will be so much easier.

4. Remember to slow down and appreciate today.

S was a quiet little lady who loved to read. I remember seeing the titles stacked up on her windowsill: How We Die, Dying Well, Being Mortal, and many others with the same theme. It initially seemed morbid for someone close to death to focus on dying, but I realized that her acceptance of the inevitable end to life helped her be more grateful for the things she had today. We would often sit together and just watch the leaves fall or listen to the birds chirp—things I wouldn't even have noticed otherwise. It is easy to get so focused on the specific residency or test score that we want. Yet, slowing down and taking a look around at the positives we already have keeps us grounded and helps us realize we can find happiness no matter what the outcome.

5. Cherish the people (and furry friends!) closest to you.

M had residual right-sided facial and extremity deficits from a stroke, but that didn't stop her from smiling all the time. She had family members and friends visiting nearly every day, with her dog tagging along on some special occasions. Even though her speech was hard to understand, most nights while I put her to bed she would tell me, “I had a lovely day.” I heard that sentence so often from her that I didn't have any trouble making it out. I don't think it was a coincidence that a year and a half after being put on hospice, she was still thriving. Our family and friends are the greatest treasures we have in this life; even when busy, we must remember to spare some time, attention, and love for the ones who helped us achieve all that we have.

Michelle Lee
University of Virginia School of Medicine
Graduating Class of 2021

Back to the August 2021 issue of ACP IMpact