July 12, 2012


Professionalism, like our white coats, is something you can slip into. It is smooth and unruffled; it is the calm in the midst of a storm; it is the decisive general in the heat of battle; it is doing what is expected of you to the utmost of your ability; it is striving to increase your knowledge so that you are always ready to make decisions.

Knowledge and capability are the perfume of professionals. They surround them in a cloud, hints of expertise and lingering high notes of compassion floating over heavy notes of reasoning and responsibility. You can almost see the haze of competence trailing behind the attendings and residents on rounds.

To step onto the wards of the hospital as a newly-minted junior medical student is to enter the unknown. It is to face yourself in the mirror every evening and ask, "Did I do everything I possibly could for my patients?" Third year is about learning to listen to your own voice, the one that whispers the answers during rounds but dies without crossing your lips. This is also a time to speak up and be corrected for your erroneous ways, because as junior medical students we know enough to be dangerous or foolish and not enough to be entirely useful all the time.

We have been in the hospital for two weeks now, and already I can feel the strands of professionalism weaving themselves into a coat around my shoulders. The responsibility I feel for my patients weighs on me, lends my enthusiasm a measure of gravitas. I leave for home wondering what else I should read to better understand their disease, asking myself what I will need to know to help them tomorrow.

I feel like a professional--some of the time. Who knows, though? I'm still only a (brand-new) junior medical student. I can barely find the patient's elbow.

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