The night before my first time volunteering at a free clinic as a medical student, it took me a solid hour before I was able to fall asleep. The typical What-ifs that plagued first year medical students kept running through my mind: What if I made a huge mistake that somehow led to me accidentally harming the patient? Luckily, although I made some minor mistakes on my shift, no such catastrophes came to pass, and I would like to share with you some of the lessons I learned that day. Here are some do’s and don’ts that might be helpful to keep in the back of your mind as you volunteer at a free clinic.
Do keep a small notebook handy. Whenever you see an interesting case or hear about a topic you are unsure of, write it down to look up later. One patient came in with right upper quadrant abdominal pain and had previously been prescribed a set of three different medications meant to relieve the pain and its associated symptoms. Curious to understand how those medications might alleviate gastric pain, I hastily scribbled down their names. I now know and will hopefully remember that famotidine decreases stomach acid secretions by blocking H2 receptors.
Don’t store your phone in the same pocket as your other medical tools. The jostling that inevitably occurs in your pockets as you walk briskly between the examination rooms and the patient waiting area might push your reflex hammer into some buttons on your phone and cause music to start blasting. As much as I enjoyed listening to “Night of the Living You” by THORNAPPLE during the drive to the clinic, context is key. The last place I wanted to hear that song was in a room where a fourth year medical student was trying to explain how much medication the patient needed to consume.
Do ask for help if you are confused about anything. Although they will most likely be busy, the doctors, nurses, and senior medical students are happy to teach you and answer questions, especially if it means preventing a bigger issue down the road. It can be incredibly nerve-wracking to try to work in a question when the doctor is plowing through a stack of prescriptions or the nurse is setting up for an injection, but knowledge empowers us to safely provide care to our patients. In the vein of one of the oft-most repeated tenets in medicine, do no harm. There is no shame in admitting you do not know something; medicine is glutted with gray areas that even some of the most experienced physicians have trouble navigating. As medical students, we need to learn how to utilize the resources and people around us to better understand what we do not know.
Don’t skip breakfast, especially if your clinic closes way after lunch. Your stomach and the ears of everyone else in the room will thank you.
Do wear comfortable shoes. The free clinic is bustling, and with vitals to take and patients to interview, the chances to sit down are few and far between. From time the clinic opened at 9:30 AM until closing time around 2 PM, I was on my feet guiding patients down a short hallway to the exam rooms and listening to them talk about how their medical problems have interfered with their daily lives.
Do keep your hands free. Towards the end of my shift, a patient came in to talk about some recurring muscle pain that had recently returned in her wrist and prevented her from working. The nurse on duty called me over to watch her give a cortisone shot to relieve this patient’s pain. As soon as the needle entered her skin, the patient yelped and reached over to grip my hand for support. So, always keep a hand free. You never know who might need it.
For all the nerves I had prior to volunteering at the clinic, I am grateful for the opportunity to work with and learn from the patients and the staff. Although I made some mistakes, I am excited for the next time I can volunteer at the free clinic and work with patients, notebook in hand and phone stashed safely away in a separate pocket.
Image Credits: Subconsci Productions, Wikimedia Commons