The Test that Matters

I love new beginnings: the first robin that greets the dawn, the fresh shoots of grass drawn up by the sun, the start of a year still crisp with January newness.  The beginning of the New Year is like the ocean foam, smoothing the footprints from the wet shore so we can dance in the surf again.

Inspired by OneWord365, I have chosen a single word to center my focus on this year.  I will follow this word throughout the coming months, paying attention to how it intersects my life—my interactions, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, responses.  I hope that throughout the year, I will grow so that this word describes me more completely, and that I will be able to look back and see it woven throughout my days like a silver thread.

 My word is perspective.

As I continue to explore who I am as a medical student and how to best grasp the sacred responsibility of interacting with others as a health care professional, the concept of perspective keeps coming to mind.  Empathy and compassion are drawn from perspective—from being able to see through another’s eyes and understand their point of view, their pain.  So is gratitude, which allows me to shift my attention from wishes and wants to what I already have.  So are many other things, things which I hope to discover this year.

One of my first encounters with perspective came on my final day of winter break.  After a few wonderful weeks with my family, my car was packed and ready for the journey back to Stanford.  The reality of leaving that day made the beauty of being with my family more vivid than ever, as if lightning had blazed across the sky and cast everything into bold relief.  As I stood on our deck, I felt what countless others have recognized before me: things become precious when time is short.

Time has indeed flown, and today finds me at the end of my second day of winter quarter.  I have been pleasantly surprised at the ease with which I’ve slipped back into my academics, since I missed my family a lot after break and was uncertain how the quarter would start for me.  For those of us who still get homesick at times, there is hope!

And now, in my second day of medical school this quarter, I have had another encounter with perspective.  We had our first lecture in Intro to Human Health and Disease this morning, which is the start of a series of courses designed to teach us how the body functions in health and illness by examining the various organ systems.  Our instructor, Dr. Robert Siegel, opened the session by bringing up several important questions we ponder as medical students.  One of the questions he posed made me smile because I have wondered it many times, particularly while studying for final exams last month:

What do we need to know for tests and boards?

After all, how can I become a physician if I don’t pass my classes?  And how can I get a residency placement if I don’t know the right material for the boards?  Although passing exams isn’t the ultimate objective of my learning, I admit that the desire to make it through an exam can overshadow thoughts about the future applications of what I am learning when I am studying for finals.

Dr. Siegel’s answer to the question awoke something in me.  “The test that matters,” he emphasized, “is the one when you walk into the patient’s room.”

The ultimate, most meaningful test is not the exam at the end of the quarter.  No matter how well I retain the material for the final, it will not benefit my future patients if it is lost in the recesses of my mind over spring break.  This shift in perspective—focusing on the material so that I can apply it in the clinical setting throughout my future, rather than learning it to pass a test in my first year of med school—breathes life into my studying.  Everything I learn has a purpose besides earning a “pass” so that I can make it to the next year, and to boards, and to the year after that.…

This is about becoming, as Dr. Siegel said, the doctor I would want to see if I were the one in need of care.

I know I’ll slip throughout the quarter and forget the true purpose of my studying, especially when finals come up in not-so-many weeks, but this is what I’m aiming for: the perspective that will enable me to recognize the real meaning of my studying, so I may one day pass the test when I step into my patient’s room.