Medical Student Perspective: What If?

I am sure she was saying something important. She must have been saying something important for the past hour, too. I quickly allowed my eyes to scan the room. Most were held in rapt attention, hunched behind the curtain of their laptops. Their fingers moved in a rapid dance across the keyboard as they attempted to chase down the knowledge and capture it. I forced my eyes to return their attention to the speaker. I felt my head nod to her words, more out of habit than anything else. In high school, my teachers could always tell when I had stopped listening because my traitorous head would stop nodding. But, that day, I had mastered that tell.

She stopped talking. I looked at the blank document intended for notes and wiped my hand across the laptop screen. No words magically appeared. My brain slowly registered the uncomfortable fact that I would have to re-listen to this lecture at home. And, as that fact pierced through the fog, an array of sounds suddenly emerged from the hall. I heard the scrap of chairs sliding, a few defiant clicks of the keyboard, and the excited chatter of classmates that typically signaled the end of a long day. I heard myself sigh.

It had been over 3 months since orientation. I remember laughing at the image of a medical student drinking from a fire hydrant. I had known medical school was going to be difficult, and I had signed up for it regardless. Not just signed up for but also worked meticulously and arduously to get here. So, when one of the professors at orientation suggested that knowledge would be coming at us like water from a fire hydrant, I had shrugged and laughed. I knew what I had signed up for. But, after 3 months of standing drenched by the fire hydrant, I was feeling the icy chill of fear.

Fear is a predator of the utmost caliber. It has a way of sneaking up on its prey and pouncing at the first sign of weakness. And that day, in that lecture hall, it had pounced on me. And try as I might, even in retrospect, I cannot truly describe that sensation. For the first time, I was scared. The enormity of the future suddenly rushed to the forefront of my present. The question of “what if” loomed large in my head. What if I don’t become a good physician? What if I am not cut out for it? What if I don’t know everything I need to in order to treat my future patients? What if I am not good enough? I knew the risk of asking these questions, yet they ran through my mind that day blocking out the lecture and the present.

I also knew that it was silly to be asking these large queries just months into medical school. I had barely begun, and here I was wondering about hypothetical situations that could occur in the distant future. The real problem with these “what-if” queries is that no answer ever truly satisfies them. Reason is the first tragedy of such fear. Modesty aside, despite the huge volume of information thrust at us every day, I was doing just fine.

But, this line of reasoning only provoked thoughts of the possibility that one day there would just be too much for me to handle and that one day it would not be fine. And that one day, I would not be good enough. And so I sat in that lecture hall, listening not to the lecture but to my own irrational fear. I wrangled with it over the next few days, unable to reason my way out of this one. Eventually, the fear and the questions it posed were superseded by the urgency of upcoming exams. However, it was not entirely gone and it remained glowing like an ember.

And now in my second semester of medical school, I cannot help but wonder how many of us, medical students, hold these embers in our minds, even though I might be succumbing to the fallacy of generalization, I cannot help but wonder if we all ask ourselves these “what-if” questions. Having had some time to sit down and admire the past months in the glow of retrospection, I can say that it was not the fire hydrant I was scared of. Initially, though, I had thought that that was the case. No; the volume of information was never the problem. I had come in knowing that medical school entailed long hours. I suppose what I had not been prepared for was the astonishing value of this information. The value it could have in the future. This information and these skills I am learning in medical school are not just for me. People trust me because of the white coat I wear and the knowledge it symbolizes. And so these years I spend in training and in school become elevated to a pedestal I was not expecting to stand on.

Standing up on stage during the white coat ceremony, I had merely been grateful to get into medical school. I suppose what I had finally realized at the inopportune time of the lecture was the true weight of the white coat. The realization brought fear and the nagging questions with it. I still don’t have any answers, but, then again, do any of us? Short of peering into the future, nothing will satisfy the “what-if” questions. For the present, I can take solace in the fact that I am trying and I will always try my best. That in the coming years, I will work to be worthy of the trust placed on me and will never take it for granted. I will always remember the reason I chose the medical field and the white coat. And, maybe most importantly, I will also trust myself to learn and to grow as a physician.

Niveditha Manivannan
Saint Louis University School of Medicine
Class of 2019

Niveditha Manivannan

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