Before I came to medical school, I had more than one family member or friend tell me that I would leave cynical and void of empathy after four years. I was outraged since I prided myself on my compassion and, to use the colloquialism, my bleeding heart for social justice. Medical school would never beat that out of me. However, sometimes I find myself frustrated when so many sources around me are telling me that medical school is designed to beat the empathy out of me (whether they are right or wrong we will leave to interpretation). This was on my mind when we read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman for our Family Centered Experience (FCE) course.
I first read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down during grad school, and revisiting it while deep in the first semester of medical school was a change of pace. It’s the type of book that people interested in public health drool over—colliding cultures, mistakes in the health care system and the public health arena that shouldn’t happen, and possibly preventable tragedy due to these mistakes. I promise that medical and public health professionals are not morbid people—instead we simply want to solve problems and learn from our failures so that we don’t make the same mistakes twice.
However, like any person who rereads a book, I found things that I hadn’t noticed before. Maybe it wasn’t so much that I hadn’t noticed them but that my perspective has started to change. One passage in particular stood out to me. Fadiman writes,
“Medicine, as it is taught in the United States, does an excellent job of separating students from their emotions. … The emotional skin-thickening is necessary—or so goes the conventional wisdom—because without it, doctors would be overwhelmed by their chronic exposure to suffering and despair. Dissociation is part of the job” (Fadiman, Pg. 274-5).
Medical school does have the potential to beat the empathy out of us, but only if we let it. Yes, we are thrown volumes of information at rapid-fire pace and we are forced to repeatedly look death and suffering in the face, all while being chronically sleep-deprived. That can easily make anyone lose empathy.
However, when I see a patient in pain, I still feel for him or her. When I see tragedy happening in the world, I am still saddened. I even still find myself wanting to fix all of the heath system’s—and world’s—problems. I believe that this is because I absolutely LOVE what I do. Sure, the things that I mentioned aren’t always pleasant, but when I’m faced with unpleasant situations, I try to remember that the good that I will one day be able to bring to my patients outweighs what I’m experiencing right now.
Luckily, I have a beautiful support system in some of my medical school classmates. They are wonderful people who check me when I complain and remind me what a privilege it is to be here. They make the studying fun and the hard days a bit easier.
Right now, we’re working our way through the last week of musculoskeletal, or MSK. We’ve spent many nights covering white boards with all kinds of information about so many muscles, but it’s really gratifying when we’re in lab and we realize that all of the work has paid off.
Of course there’s still time for fun, extracurricular activities, and causes that we care about. I have been hosting applicants and leading tours on interview days, as well as participating in the University of Michigan Student-Run Free Clinic (but that deserves a post of its own). It’s also near the holidays so my roommate and I have been baking a lot for our various groups and meetings (our apartment smells amazing). Other recent school-wide events have included Galen’s Tag Days, preparation for Biorhythms (an amazing dance show put on completely by med students), and auditions for the Smoker. Students also took part in the National White Coat Die-In (check out #whitecoats4blacklives on Twitter).
Next week we have our MSK exam, which brings the end of the first semester of med school. I can’t believe it’s gone by so quickly, yet I can’t wait to spend the holidays with family and friends back home.
Thanks for reading!
Fadiman, A. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1997.
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Angelica is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School. When she’s not on the wards, you can find her on a run around Ann Arbor or passionately discussing medicine and public health over tea.