“Hi. I’m Nuriel Moghavem. I’m a first — er — second-year medical student working with your doctor. Is it alright if I ask you a few questions to get us started today?”
I’ve only become marginally more comfortable with the medical student Introduction since the first time that basic script came out of my mouth about a year ago. Well, that’s not totally true. The first time, I managed to drop my clipboard, get my white coat caught in the door and lose my dignity all before shaking the patient’s hand with a glob of sanitizer still in my palm.
So let’s say the second time (I still dropped the clipboard, but, hey, baby steps).
It’s a weird kind of introduction. You want to seem confident while you explain that you’re basically a clueless medical student. Imagine your mechanic: “Hi, I’m Joe and I’ll be servicing your vehicle today. But could you first tell me which side’s the front?”
As a person used to knowing the answers, or at least pretending like I know the answers (you’ve got to be better at the latter to get into medical school in the first place), having to humble myself upon first meeting a stranger feels unnatural, weird, painful even. “I don’t know” doesn’t come naturally to me: in social situations, I’ll either look up an answer quickly on my phone, make up something that sounds legit, or pretend I didn’t hear the question. Girlfriends hate the first, professors hate the second, and parents hate the third, so I have to mix my strategies up depending on the situation.
But you can’t just ignore the question or, worse, make up a “legit-sounding” answer when you have a patient looking to you. For that reason, first year was hard for me. I had to get used to admitting that I didn’t know.
I can’t remember the first time I really said it with a patient (perhaps my mind blocking out the emotional trauma), but by the end of the year, “I don’t know” proved itself to be my most valuable tool in medical school. Indeed, what began as a dread phrase has been my key to the doors of medical perception. “I don’t know” has allowed me to level with patients, and to gain the expert opinion of watchful attendings. In a second, it makes my white coat — the symbol of physician pomp and holier-than-thou — vanish.
So as I begin my second year, I can tell you proudly that in my first year of medical school, I learned that I know nothing. My parents will be ecstatic.