I cried after the first physical exam in Doctoring.
Nothing went wrong; it was just the heat—the heat from the sun against my back, on my backpack, emanating from the parking lot pavement, rising from my chest. I had never spoken to a patient before; not directly, at least, not first.
He had a shoulder problem. He had been a tennis player for decades; I felt for my tendon first, for reference, then his tendon was so large that my reference point quickly became moot. I didn’t like touching him. I didn’t like how we plucked and prodded at him, one after the other. stared at his bare chest, then his bare back, for asymmetries, then shouted them out loud to our M4 for correctness. Then shouted back at the patient, standardized or not, screaming “IS IT ALRIGHT IF WE LAY YOU DOWN NOW, SIR?” as if he was hard of hearing, and as if we used “sir” on a regular basis. I didn’t like how I had an office job for three years, how my scrubs still had new creases, how my peers had been medical assistants and EMTs and I had been so blissfully unaware of the intricacies of this career that I wanted so bad, my clinical memories still filed neatly away in my pre-Covid years. In my old life, it paid to be prim and proper, not to wear a uniform where range of motion is paramount. In my old life, it paid to present only the final product, not to think aloud so that my superiors could chime in. I hurting the patient, and the stress of accidentally doing so boiled up my tear ducts.
After sobbing, I watched three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. I’d held off for 17 years, but I decided that night that if I could watch McDreamy and play doctor for long enough, I could one day play doctor too. I called my friend, berating him for telling me that medical school would be easier than undergrad. He laughed and told me to “vibe it out.” I fired off emails to pursue shadowing experiences. I stood in the mirror, stethoscope over my own heart sounds until the thought of feeling for ribs didn’t scare me anymore.
In January, I began Doctoring Practicum Experiences in the same hallway that the physical exams were held. With these, I would have three hours, uninterrupted, three cases to play doctor. I stumbled my way through these, turning to my preceptor at every mental crossroad and reciting his words back with each presentation. In the feedback session, my standardized patient praised me for my “willingness to palpate.” Bubbles of laughter escaped from my mouth and his. I realized I wasn’t scared anymore. I had officially left a life where I could pretend to be perfect, buffered by slide decks and and three rounds of peer reviews. My new role was to take errors in stride, a desire to learn being far more paramount than being correct for now. I’ll play dress up, again and again, for as long as Grey’s Anatomy stays on the air or patients will let me, whichever one comes last.