rashid elhawli

Mistakes Were Made

“So Priscilla, what can you tell me about cirrhosis?”

As per usual, my mind went blank. Two months into placement and my brain had yet to successfully retrieve and open fire responses to questions within a reasonable amount of time. To confuse it even further, I had just finished a cardiovascular and respiratory rotation and was now doing a stint with gastroenterology unit. I was still stuck on murmurs and hyper-resonant lung fields.

“Cirrhosis?” he nodded at me kindly. My mind raced. Think, Priscilla, what does cirrhosis sound like? I might add at this point, that whilst I’ve spelt the word perfectly on paper, at the time, I received it phonetically and thus you must forgive my next response: “Is it…inflammation of the serous membrane?”

He looked at me. I’m sure I had the most dumbfounded expression on my face and he smiled. “…cirrhosis?” was all he said and suddenly it clicked. “Oh my god no, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what happened to my brain there, permanent scarring of the liver?”

Here’s the kicker. I was sitting with a gastroenterologist in what was specifically called the Liver Clinic.

He laughed and nodded. “Don’t worry, I have those moments all the time, but yes, that is cirrhosis. Now can you tell me why that might occur?” I spent the rest of the morning with this kind and absolutely willing to teach doctor, and whilst I did learn, my mind continued to revert back to that dunce moment I’d had. I was thankful that he was the only one who had heard my response. If this occurred in the middle of the ward in front of the gastroenterology team there would have been a high likelihood of me becoming too embarrassed to show my face in that ward ever again.

It might interest you to know that my ambition in medical school is to never become a funny topic of conversation during morning tea in the breakroom.

Mistakes though, do happen. And it’s necessary to remember that they happen to everyone, whether they are a consultant or a clueless third year medical student. But since I am not (yet) the former, my musings are perhaps more relevant to the latter.

It’s hard to forget that our peers don’t actually know everything. Group tutorials are a constant reminder that someone knows more than you. But we have been told time and time again that this is never the case. Your colleague doesn’t know more, they simply know different things. Medicine is too broad for one person to be an expert in everything, and too varied for them to have a vested interest in all topics anyway. Often what we know best is what we find to be the most intriguing as there arises a desire to learn more. So often we sit (or stand) in these tutorials, a mounting panic growing as we realise that someone seems to have memorised the whole CHADSVASC score and the whole treatment plan for deep vein thrombosis and are now appearing to be infinitely better than you are. When in fact, you happen to know COPD like it was your own child and they can’t even distinguish between Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema. Perhaps poor choices in examples, as both of these topics should be a staple in a medical student’s diet, however I think I’m making a valid point.

So while it is easy to say and hard to do, try not to panic too much when you feel as if someone knows more than you do. Note down that gap in your knowledge, and fill it in (also something that is easily said and harder to do). Sometimes you are going to be embarrassed by blurting out a completely incorrect response. The Liver Clinic incident was only one of the many times I’ve said something that has been completely off the mark. Funnily enough I’ve found that my confidence has been slowly growing at just attempting to answer questions with only a vague idea as to the correct response. Trying is never the wrong thing to do, and sometimes you just might be correct.

Besides, think of how inwardly envious your peers would be when the doctor smiles and says: “Yes, you’re right.”

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