Thursday, July 19, 2007

ShortCoat: musings of a medical student...

Change: From the Inside Out

"So what year are you guys?" says the preceptor. The medical students look around at each other with confused half smiles, "End of third year? Beginning of fourth year?" The preceptor replies, "Well if the class of 2007 graduated in May that makes YOU the fourth years." This felt good. Really good.

However, during a two week “selective” at the end of our third year, I began to wonder if I made the right choice to be a doctor. Of the eight electives offered, I chose Global Public Health, something every med student claims to be interested in from the moment they start typing their med school essay.

The doctor running the seminar challenged us to rethink our role as physicians immediately posed an interesting statement. "In these international relief efforts or disaster-stricken areas,” he said, “the doctor is probably one of the least useful people in comparison to the water engineer or sanitation coordinator. The doctor really acts more as a pair of hands." Fantastic, I thought. I’m going into debt to be a “pair of hands.”

We examined several problems in the seminar--global warming, urbanization, access to clean water, etc. The numbers are overwhelming: 20% of world lacks access to clean water, 40% lacks access to basic sanitation; 3.1 million people die every year from diarrhea-related illnesses, mostly children. 1.6 million of these deaths could be prevented with proper water management. The statistics weighed heavily on me and made me and my two hands feel fairly insignificant.

At this point in the course, I wondered if I chose the right profession. Should I have become a politician or an economist in order to really effect change? Perhaps I should’ve become a banker, ran a hedge fund and rubbed noses with the uber-wealthy. At least then I could have gotten them to write checks to supply a small country for the next ten years. It’s hard enough to get people to listen when you’re just a doctor, let alone a ‘short coat’.

Later we watched a documentary on a Médecins Sans Frontières doctor working at a refugee camp outside of Darfur. Romantic, hip, or cheesy as it may seem, watching this made me and several of my classmates excited again. Thinking about these enormous problems, seeing the staggering statistics, and watching our own government fail us can be overwhelming. But we can and do make a difference every day. In this context, I think I will be happy with just being a “pair of hands” dealing with the ‘smaller’ problems. I’ll be living in the big picture as only a brush stroke, but hopefully changing it ever so slightly from the inside out.

Written by Tom Kim, a 4th year medical student at NYU School of Medicine

ShortCoat is a column written by medical students describing their tumultuous journey through medical school. This column is open to all medical students who would like to contribute their stories. Please send your story to

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