My Physician Alter-Ego

We are hardcore.

We don’t like to say it. Doctors, nurses, and other folks in the medical profession known for the long shifts, the 80-hour weeks and the life-and-death scenarios, we like to say “Ah well, it’s just what it is. We signed up for this.”

That may be true, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.

I say this as someone who is on the “softer” side of the medical profession with my choice of specialty; this week I will have only worked 72 hours in six 12-hour increments. I’m in the emergency department as part of my overall intern-year curriculum, though it is not my area of study – it is expected that I be able to manage these patients with the help of my attending physician and make halfway decent decisions if I have an unstable patient while waiting for the real expert to show up. I feel tired probably 70% of the time, and when I look back on my week I wonder how in the world I made it through. It takes a huge amount of energy to go to work every morning and deal with serial emergencies (major props to my friends in emergency med and internal med – I really don’t know how y’all deal with this forever).

I’m not saying this to be all “hey, look at me,” I’m saying hey, look at us. We live weird lives compared to everyone else – that’s why they make television shows about us, along with cops and military folks. Those three groups are the fodder for countless stories because it’s just generally something that most people will not experience in life. We made some of the most critical moments in life our jobs, every single day. The majority of everyday people will not see day after day of psychosis, suicide attempts, and crippling anxiety. They don’t routinely welcome new humans into the world or watch as children die way too young.

Maybe it’s different for people from medical families, but from my perspective, this life is incredible. When I was a kid doctors were somewhat mysterious (perhaps more so for me than other people – my mother didn’t really believe in doctors). They didn’t seem like fully formed people; they were mystical folks who fixed things and knew things. Surely these people were just born this way. No one becomes a doctor, they just are. The universe declared them so.

I was almost old enough to drive when I came to the seemingly obvious realization that doctors were people who went through years of school to learn a profession which is way beyond the realm of normal experience (turns out that the few doctors I met as a kid were the most educated folks I had any contact with – who knew?). It was a shock for me to find out that I could be one – a kid who grew up in a town of 6,000 people, raised by a single mother who cleaned houses and waited tables. They let people like me into school, with the right grades and extracurriculars.

Turns out this doctoring thing really is an acquired skill, or so they tell me. I’ve officially been a doctor for six months and I still have a hard time believing I’m part of this world. “Dr. Cooper, radiology for you on line two,” the department secretary calls over the loudspeaker. Dr. Cooper, who? Why are nurses looking to me for advice and direction? Plenty of them are close to twice my age. Surely not – surely not me.

I believed every day for the four years I spent in med school that I was going to fail out, despite never failing a class. Every board exam was another opportunity to prove that my admission to med school was some kind of mistake. I was not born a doctor; any time now, they’re going to figure out that I’m a fraud dressed in a white coat, trying to pretend I’m one of them.

I passed my third and final licensing exam a couple weeks ago, and now I can’t really make that argument anymore. I didn’t just pass it, either – I did well, so well that you’d almost think I was one of those doctors spontaneously formed from the fabric of the universe.

In six hours I start an overnight emergency shift. I will bike myself up the hill, take off the tie-dye and don hospital-issued scrubs. My nametag says “Physician,” the whitecoat inspires confidence. I’ll hit the floor running in my tennis shoes, ready to take on whatever comes in. I’ve been on the service long enough that the attendings have started to trust me.

I think I’m slowly getting to the point in my life where I’m beginning to trust myself. I’m not sure that the title will ever merge with my identity the way I imagined it as a kid. Healthcare providers are people, some of them people just like me. Tie-dye, fantasy writing, and all.

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