The Medical Monastery

There are basically two types of medical students. Some people go to med school straight after college, because they like science and helping people and such, and it’s what you do if you were a biology major, and it’s what they’ve wanted to do since they were 7, and it means you don’t have to figure out how to find a job. For a lot of these students, it makes medical school more or less like college, except more work: you live off of enormous loans or help from your family, and your world is school, and your social life revolves around school, and you know all the gossip.

Then there’s the other group, who may have taken some time off, or even not really intended to go to med school originally, having followed other paths for a while before deciding that this is, actually, what they want to do. These peripatetic folks tend to see med school more as a means to an end, not the default next step, and they tend to have more of a life outside of school, and less of one inside: significant other, work, other projects, pets. And sometimes kids.

This article about having a baby in med school made me think more about this distinction. Because if schools admit the second type of student–which they do, at least my alma mater–there are necessarily going to be more conflicts between training and life. And one of those is being in a place where having a baby makes sense. And in a lot of ways, medical school is a good time, because you don’t have real patient responsibilities, at least not in the sense that the team suffers if you’re not around. Obviously there would be accommodations that needed to be made: some scheduling flexibility and the ability to take out even more student loans to cover child care. But they don’t seem particularly burdensome to anyone.

But while plenty of people are supportive of students (or residents or fellows) having babies, plenty are not–or at least raise an eyebrow. The underlying assumption is all gratification is delayed until training is finished, including having a life outside of the hospital. In other words, medical training is so all consuming it necessitates being cloistered off from the world until finished. And there certainly is something to that; I’m sure I would have studied more had I not been married when I started med school. These sound like the people that this woman had to deal with at her program.

And yet. Being a good doctor requires that we empathize with our patients, and part of that is by having shared in their experiences: not the everyday, but the major life events that everyone goes through. Many of them are from backgrounds very difficult than that of the average med student or physician. But basically everyone can relate to marriage and raising children. By sending the message that we should defer these things until after training, we ensure that we form the habits and ways of relating, or not, that we will keep throughout our careers before the rest of our lives have taken shape.

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