It has been three months since I started medical school and I only just now had my first patient. Now she wasn’t my first patient that I ever encountered (I don’t think I would have chosen medicine or even made it into med school without having some kind of patient interaction), but she was my first real patient in which I was one of her providers. I practically died of excitement when I saw my name listed as part of her medical team. The apathetic fourth year seeing the patient with us probably thought us first years were a little too happy to be seeing a new patient at 8 pm on a Tuesday night, but I did not care one bit. This was why I came to medical school. All I that I have done since starting med school in August was study and learn—not exactly what I want to be doing. I want to treat patients.
Let me give you a quick (uninteresting) background on how I came to see my first patient. Every Tuesday and Thursday, my medical school holds a free clinic for uninsured or underinsured patients. Along with other med students we work with social work students, pharmacy students, etc. to give the most well-rounded care possible. In fact, many patients that come to our clinic use it as their primary care office. Logistically, a fourth year heads the patient’s medical team with younger students contributing as much as they’ve learned. Afterwards, the team presents to the supervising attending who either confirms the team’s conclusions or asks that we get more information or run more tests. Overall, it’s an incredible learning opportunity on top of the added bonus of actually seeing a patient and having an excuse not to study for a couple hours.
FYI: I’m not going to divulge too much information about my patient, clinically given HIPAA laws and such.
So here it was. Three first year med students in our starch white coats, a confident MD/PhD student and an exhausted fourth year in wrinkled scrubs crammed into a tiny exam room with our patient and her husband. I can imagine how overwhelming our patient felt, especially when us first years began shooting unorganized, seemingly random questions about her history of present illness, family history and past medical history. She was a good sport though; although timid and shy, she answered all of our questions and didn’t make us feel awkward. I had to keep reminding myself that I had to be confident, though. She came to us expecting to be cared for. This was for real.
About an hour and a half later, we had finished her exam and made a preliminary plan for her care. Our attending was impressed (undoubtedly more so at the fourth year and MD/PhD student than us first years) and agreed with how we wanted to proceed. We then all went back to the tiny exam room and spoke to our patient about what we wanted to do. She seemed hesitant and I had a sinking feeling that compliance might be an issue. Like for many patients in an underserved area, going to a pharmacy to pick up your meds or returning to the clinic to get necessary bloodwork is a much lower priority than caring for young kids and/or your job that keeps food on the table. I won’t get the opportunity to follow-up with my patient in the next few weeks (first years are limited to the number of times they can help out in clinic) but I hope she makes the effort for her health and to set a good example for her children as well.
My first patient probably won’t remember my name or face. I’ll probably never even see her again. But she will always be the first person that I helped treat (albeit in a nearly imperceptible manner). I will always remember her because she was my first patient.