Beyond the Biology

by Arianne Felicitas, OMS-II

This article was originally published in the May/June issue of the Tarrant County Physician. You can read find the full magazine here.

My stomach somersaulted as I sipped on another cup of coffee, preparing for a long night of studying cardiology. I realized it was my fifth cup by that point in the afternoon, but I—or more specifically, my grades—could not afford rest. This was my first semester of medical school, when I struggled to see if I truly belonged. It seemed as if everyone around me was adjusting so well, making friends and staying on top of the material, while I was getting buried underneath hundreds upon hundreds of PowerPoint slides each week and felt like I was losing touch with what the art of Medicine meant to me. Whenever this feeling stirs up, I reflect on the experiences that remind me of the humanity behind Medicine.  

“Can you help me?” asked one of the residents on the shift. I was part of that summer’s Project Healthcare team, a group of pre-health students volunteering at the emergency department of Bellevue, the country’s oldest hospital. As a volunteer who constantly felt self-conscious about being in the way, I was eager to help. I held an emesis container as the patient, a woman in her 30s, vomited. Afterward, I conversed with her and discovered she was in the ED due to severe abdominal pain. “Maybe it was the spicy food I ate,” she speculated. The resident returned to the bed, preparing to insert a nasogastric tube. As he explained the procedure, the patient became nervous, fearing the pain that was about to compound what she already felt. She asked me if I would hold her hand during this procedure, which I agreed to do. Although I could not alleviate her medical issue, I felt honored and humbled. The patient placed trust in my presence and allowed me, for a brief moment, to provide comfort through physical touch during a painful procedure. 

During my undergraduate years, I also volunteered at MD Anderson Cancer Center. I had the opportunity to assume different roles, but the one that shaped me most was being an in-patient unit volunteer. This entailed visiting patients on the floor I was assigned to and seeing if they were in the mood to converse. As someone who primarily spent time with my peers, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and learned how to strike up conversations with individuals of different ages from varying walks of life. While I felt a slight wave of nervousness every time I knocked on a door, I became more confident in my ability to interact with patients. Although time to converse with patients is much more limited now that I am a medical student instead of a volunteer, I hope to carry over the conversational skills I developed to establish rapport and instill trust in my future patients. 

These experiences shaped my time before medical school. However, as a pre-clinical medical student, it is still important for me to seek experiences that show me what type of physician I would like to be. An activity that I have found incredibly rewarding is writing letters advocating for the release of individuals at immigration detention centers for medical reasons during the COVID-19 pandemic. I review relevant patient medical records and compose the letter in collaboration with an attending physician and an attorney. Not only do I learn more about the medical conditions of the patients but also how I can apply the knowledge I am spending years gaining to help improve someone’s environmental conditions.   

The science behind Medicine has allowed us to achieve great feats in the prevention and treatment of disease, such as the creation of hemodialysis and the discovery of penicillin. Thorough knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and pathology is foundational in Medicine but is insufficient in our role as physicians. We see people in their most vulnerable states and owe it to our patients—and ourselves—to seek experiences that show us what it means to be human beyond the biology of our bodies.

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