Five weeks back in med school. A few have wondered how I’m doing with the transition of meeting 130 new classmates and going back to basic science filling much of my mind [thank you for asking!]. To answer, I haven’t had much chance to think about it. We are moving SO fast. I feel like a car revving up RPMs, but unable to shift to an easier gear. Perhaps this inability to master any given topic is part of the hidden curriculum: teaching us about the inevitable powerlessness we will someday face in treating real disease... Anyway, I am struggling a lot to understand how a single organ system works, much less how they all jive together.
Despite the self-degrading overwhelmingness and need to titrate much caffeine for bare minimum function, I do understand one thing: we are not so much learning things as we are learning a way to talk about things. And that entry into a new way of speaking… it’s thrilling.
Today, I can at least talk about lung compliance and blood volume status. Couldn't do that a year ago. And, because of “extra” experiences—an awesome global health elective, a rockstar conferences on global non-communicable diseases...—I am expanding my diction beyond the basic science, to articulating a burden of disease and specific (sometimes controversial, often unproven) strategies to keep people well. I don’t know a single aspect of these things in any depth—probably much less depth than my physiology professor will expect for next week’s exam—but I am at least starting to learn a new way of speaking, and someday acting on my words. I am learning a language.
I had a conversation last week that got me thinking about language. We were talking about the discourse of global health as compared to the discourse of spiritually-grounded medicine. Typically, those are different conversations.
Global health people, such as the esteemed participants of last week’s conference, talk freely about community-grounded solidarity and human rights frameworks…systems solutions that translate to clear, deliverable health outcomes. Humanistic medicine people talk about the way illness “disturbs a soul” (as Daniel Sulmasy writes), and the privilege of healthcare providers encountering a patient’s suffering, and sometimes healing... though not always in the obvious ways. Panning away from health alone, Notre Dame made me much familiar with the most personal aspects of social justice—that we must intentionally sustain our own work, because we believe what Oscar Romero said, that “we are workers, not master builders...we are prophets of a future not our own.”
So, I wonder: might we find ways to merge those conversations? A rights-based solidarity approach, an appreciation for the spirit of people in health and illness, and an intentional long view that keeps us moving as individual members of a incomprehensibly grand whole...how do we talk about these ideas? I can think of a few common words—compassion, suffering with, momentum, focus, justice, trust, hope. Much remains to be said.
So, back in medical school, I am learning a browbeatingly difficult language. Wish me luck. Perhaps I might also help create a language.