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Lessons Beyond the Books

Match day is approaching, and I can barely contain my excitement. I cannot believe how quickly medical school has passed. I can vividly remember waking up at 8:00 a.m. and nervously checking my computer for the Texas medical school announcement. After seeing I had been accepted, I ran to give my mom the incredible news. I had tears of joy running down my face. The first day of class was a mixture of exhilaration and anxiety. Although I had earned my place in medical school, I was aware of the enormous task I was now facing. As I reach the end of my medical school journey, I have been reflecting on all I have learned from books and patients alike. I am amazed at how much I have learned.

Growing up as a child, I decided I wanted to become a doctor. However, the only thing I knew about medicine was from television and visits to the pediatrician. Although my knowledge was superficial, it was the most ambitious goal I could set. Eventually, I realized this was not reason enough. Besides long years of training, medicine can be challenging and emotionally draining.

Coming from a family where my father is a criminal defense attorney and my younger brother is a newly minted attorney, a career in law briefly crossed my mind because of the aid and advocacy it allows. Yet, physicians not only aid, but also advocate for their patients as well. In my short medical career, I have had the opportunity to assist patients in many ways such as calling insurance companies and setting up appointments. I have found out physicians are a trusted resource during the most vulnerable time for many families.

I was also able to build relationships with patients and their families. I had the unique experience of following a patient on my acting internship, and the next month during my rheumatology rotation. I saw this patient every day. There were good days and not-so-good days. Her husband and family were always there at the bedside. I became close with the patient and her family during these two months. Unfortunately, due to Hurricane Harvey, I was unable to see the patient before she was discharged. A few weeks later, the family reached out to inform me she had passed. This was the first patient I had developed a close relationship with – a patient that passed away. The family thanked me for my care. I was saddened by the news. However, being told she especially appreciated her daily interaction with me brought me comfort. I have discovered physicians are able to improve quality of life in many ways.

Prior to medical school, I was unsure which specialty to pursue. Finally understanding how the body works was fascinating. However, I felt pulled in every direction because I enjoyed all of my clinical rotations. I was delighted to discover that internal medicine allowed me to combine things I loved about each specialty. Additionally, internal medicine is conducive to building patient relationships. I had a young lupus patient who was hospitalized for nearly three weeks. Over time I found out that she enjoyed dancing, corny dogs at the rodeo, and like any 20-year-old, wanted to be home. As a result, she opened up to me about some of the symptoms she was not forthcoming about. When my rotation was ending, I told her it would be my last day. She thanked me for listening to her and relaying to the team things she felt were important. Aside from pure medical knowledge, I have learned the value of the doctor patient relationships.

One of my most cherished experiences was with one of my African American patients and her family. They were delighted to see a doctor who looked like them. They hugged me and told me they were proud of me. I know that the moment I swing open the door, I am being judged. I realize some patients might initially have positive or negative reactions to things I cannot change, nor would I, such as my race, gender, age, or even my soft voice. In fact, I take pride in these things. I have learned to stay focused on being the best future doctor I can be.

Residency is approaching, and I cannot believe how much I have changed. I have gained more knowledge than I could have imagined. I have built many wonderful relationships. Sadly, I have also learned how hard it is to lose patients. Although I have matured into a confident future clinician, I am excited about the things I have yet to learn. As I transition from medical student to doctor, I am thankful that I have the privilege to practice medicine.

Ericka Howard
McGovern Medical School of the University of Texas - Class of 2018

Back to the March 2018 issue of ACP IMpact