When I’m talking to prospective medical students or young persons who might be considering some type of career in patient care, I tell them a story: Many years ago before I had left Wake Forest University, I was given a great opportunity by a local physician friend who would often join us on the swim team during practice.
He arranged for me a private talk with the Dean of Admissions at Duke University School of Medicine. It was sort of a “pre-admissions-interview” interview. After a pleasant conversation with the Dean I was allowed to go on the medical school tour with a lot of actual interviewees who were there as part of their application process. I was accompanied on the trip by a young woman friend who wanted to come along for the ride.
As we walked above the surgical suites we (the prospective students and myself) were soon thrilled to find ourselves in the “surgical observation” area. We were gazing down through a skylight window into one of Duke’s fabled cardiothoracic operating rooms and directly into the open chest cavity of a patient undergoing a complex valve procedure. A throbbing heart undulated in a pool of blood as adroit latex-gloved fingers darted to and fro, weaving silken spider webs of suture material. All of us were transfixed.
All except one.
Hearing a whimper to my right I looked over to see my friend’s ashen face descending slowly to the floor atop a potato sack of a body that had just a second before been upright by my side.
It never occurred to me that some people just can’t look at another human being in that state and in that way.
This is, after all, is what separates us, “The Strange Ones”, from normal people. And we do forget this sometimes. This is what I tell young folks to consider if they want to become medical people. You have to be able to “flip that switch” that others (the “normal ones”) don’t. There is a barrier you have to be able to cross in your interactions with another human being. If you can’t cross it, you aren’t medical material. Whether with a needle, a scope, a scalpel, a probe, a tube, a finger, or even just with your mind, the barrier you must cross is another person’s skin.