At my locker, I’m fidgeting with my white coat. The sleeves are too long, my ID badge is crooked and I notice a piece of string hanging from the lapel. Not to mention, this coat is also eerily white. It’s blinding. I’m sure I’d glow like a jellyfish if the lights went off. As I close my locker door, I feel as if I’m leaving behind the trappings of my student self: my laptop with all my notes, my papers etched with messy anatomical drawings and my colored pens. I take a deep breath. This is the real thing, I think as I walk away from my locker, slowly making my way to the coffee kiosk in the hospital lobby where my group will meet. This is the first time I’m asked to officially wear my white coat. I’m uncomfortable with this new identity. I almost want to remove the coat and keep my badge. People can read that I’m a medical student, I reason. I look at my badge. It’s written in big bold letters: Janel Feliz Martir, and right underneath my name emblazoned in black text is the title – MEDICAL STUDENT.
It’s too late. I see my group waiting by the kiosk. Everyone is wearing a white coat, and everyone looks so proud. I wonder if I’m an anomaly: Am I the only one chafing beneath this neon white costume? I have no idea what to expect when I get to the oncology department. I see the nurse’s station. In it, there is a shelf full of thick binders with numbers stamped on the side. I see a few nurses scurrying around. One is carrying a bed pan, and another makes her way through the floor with determination. This is so real, I think. I’m reminded of my mom who works as a critical care nurse in downtown Brooklyn. This is her milieu, and now (technically) it is mine, too. I have a brief moment of panic as a vision of my future dawns upon me. Well, it’s actually staring me right in the face. I feel angry at myself. I’ve worked so hard to get here, worked so hard to have this moment, this moment right here, and in this moment, instead of celebrating, I’m shaking. I hear a beeper go off in the distance, and I see a resident walk past me. What did I get myself into? Suddenly, the coat feels heavy. I think of the patient I am about to meet, and at the same time, I think of all the future patients I will meet all the future patients who will rely on me, and trust me to guide them as their partner in healthcare. I think I may have stopped breathing; the thought of all that responsibility is overwhelming.
One by one, we go into rooms to meet our patients. I secretly hope for a female patient – I hope this even without realizing it. Then, I’m walking into the room, meeting my first patient on my own. Her name is Morgan*. She is kind and pleasant. She’s 36 years-old and her favorite color is red. When I meet her, I’m surprised – she doesn’t even look sick. “I’m a talker” she tells me. I sit down next to her, and she tells me her story. I listen, my ears as open as a rabbit’s. There is something very powerful about sitting in the presence of a storyteller. I suddenly feel like I am participating in a tradition as old as time. She smiles as she talks. Occasionally, she uses her hands. Her eyebrows raise, her eyes widen. She is animated. I smile as I revel in this unique opportunity.
After this encounter, I realized that story-telling is a bonding experience both for the storyteller and the listener. As I left her room, there was an implicit understanding between us that somehow we were connected in a human way. She had trusted me with her story, the story of her life, and her sickness. We were bonded somehow like friends, but not quite. There was this respectful acknowledgement between us – something like: “I know you. I understand you, who you are. And that’s cool.” As I left the hospital, on my way back to the medical school, I looked at the sleeves of my white coat. Suddenly, it didn’t feel as heavy.
*Name has been changed to protect patient confidentiality.