I get a fair number of emails from people asking me for advice on careers in medicine. I don't answer them often, because realistically I can't make those decisions for someone else. A career in this insane field, not to mention all its different branches, is a pretty personal choice.
A medical student, though, recently wrote and asked what one piece of advice I'd give anyone already in med school (besides "cut your losses and get the hell out"), so I thought about it.
Here it is:
Learn to tie shoes.
Yes, you read that correctly. That's my sage advice, for whatever it's worth, to all of you in training.
Now, I figure you already know how to tie your own shoes (although in the age of Velcro straps I could be wrong). What I'm talking about is tying someone elses shoes. This is a 180° reversed perspective of tying your own, and takes a little bit of getting used to, and not making them too tight.
During my 4th year of medical school I had a rotation where I was assigned to a family practice doc, just for his morning rounds at the hospital. I don't remember his name. He was in his mid-50's, and was always neatly dressed with a tan blazer. I'd meet him outside the doctor's lounge every morning and we'd see his hospital patients.
What always impressed me is how he knew his patients. Not just their medical stuff, but he'd often make comments like "she bakes the best sweet potato pie" or "he paints great landscapes." And his patients clearly adored him, too.
Anyway, the time we rounded was usually when breakfast was being brought around. Most docs I'd met would just ignore it, and have the food set aside until they were done talking to them.
But not this guy. He'd take the trays and help sit the patient up to have them. He'd ask what they liked in their coffee (though usually he already knew!). He'd open those little cardboard milk cartons (they can be tricky) and pour it in cups or on cereal. He peeled and cut up bananas for them.
And, if we happened to go in while they were getting ready to go home, he'd help them tie their shoes.
Although some may find this silly, I found it was a pretty important lesson. Letting your patients know you care about them goes beyond looking in ears and reviewing labs. It wasn't an act, this guy obviously just wanted to help them.
I typically don't round during meals, but I do tie shoes. Checking feet for atrophy, sensation, and reflexes are a big part of being a neurologist, so you end up with barefoot patients sitting on your exam table.
Younger people generally don't want help, but older people or those with physical limitations appreciate it. Helping them put on socks and tie their shoes may not seem like a lot... But it is. It's letting someone know you care about them, no matter how grody their toenails are.
Pro tip: always keep a shoe-horn handy.
No matter how far you go in medicine and life, never think that you're above helping another person put their shoes and socks on. You aren’t. And someday you may be in their position.