Why is Everyone Laughing at the Medical Student?

Why is Everyone Laughing at the Med Student? By: Elizabeth McKinnon,  3rd Year Medical Student

It’s no secret to anyone that I am an avid lover of yarn crafts. Since the tender age of 12, when my aunt placed a crochet hook in my hand and taught me the single crochet, you could say I’ve been “hooked”. Over the years, I made headbands and purses and plush hats for everyone I knew. The only thing keeping me from making myself a fashionable “summer scarf” was the fact that I grew up in Florida and didn’t want to sweat to death. But yes, string has been my thing.
So you can imagine my surprise when I was publically chastised for my ability to essentially cut string.

I had never done a 24-hour overnight call shift until my OB/GYN rotation. Call me old-fashioned, but I function best with a few hours of sleep under my belt. The universe had other plans for me, however, when I found myself assisting on a C-section at 3:30am.

Scrubbed in and double-gloved, I rested my left hand on the patient’s thigh, protected beneath layers of blue cloth, while my right hand clung to a pair of sterile scissors. I was poised and ready for the surgeon to say, “Cut please”, where I would scoop in with my shiny scissors. Like an actress kneeling in the shadows on stage left, I was ready.

“Cut please.”

I snipped. I smiled. I waited for the gracious outpouring of thanks as if I was handing the doctor a gold Oscar statuette.
Instead, he gave me a look and told me I was cutting totally wrong.
I was cutting…wrong?

“Who taught you how to do that, Elizabeth? Don’t you know you’re supposed to twist it before you cut? Here, give me those scissors before you hurt someone and let me show you how you’re supposed to do it.”

The resident couldn’t help but laugh as he kept on suturing. The nurse started laughing, too. And then from behind the blue curtain separating the patient’s glazed eyes from my bewildered little face, I heard the anesthesiologist laugh. For a girl of just barely over five feet in height, I felt even smaller than I usually do.

Forget for a minute that I have artist experience with string, but I also have work experience with sutures. For about a year before I started medical school, I worked for a dermatologist and routinely assisted on surgical procedures. A large part of my job was devoted to cutting the suture after it was tied. In that time, I had never, ever been told that cut the wrong way or that I was somehow endangering the patient by not giving the scissors a microscopic and swift twist. I wasn’t about to inject this factoid into the OR conversation, but I was wholeheartedly perplexed – I had never been told otherwise that I cannot cut!

The surgeon then proceeded to show me his preferred method of cutting sutures, which really didn’t look any different than when I did it.  He talked to me like I was a certified idiot, slowing his hands down so that my tiny brain could freeze-frame each insufferable moment. He spoke my name over and over again as if it was a curse word. I was so embarrassed I would have traded spots with the patient and minus the anesthesia right then and there. But alas, he gave me back the scissors and I tried my best to copy his method. When I did well, he thanked me under his breath. When it wasn’t just right, he raised his voice. “No, no, no, Elizabeth. What did we talk about?”

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If it wasn’t 3:30am, I might have been able to laugh it off. But because I was inches from falling asleep in my sterile gown and booties, I wasn’t having it.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to curse. I wanted to tell the nurse that I would sue the crap out of her if she touched me again (she manually unfolded my hands in a violent manner at the beginning of the procedure). I wanted to pull off the gown and the gloves and tell them all where to shove it. Why I would have walked out of the OR holding my head up high and then head to the cafeteria to get a bag of Famous Amos cookies to taste delicious chocolate with just a hint of victory. Boy would that have been awesome!
But of course, none of this took place outside the confines of my head. I just nodded and took every blow until the patient was closed and then I could leave. And although the actress in me loves big, dramatic moments, I know in my heart that I did the right thing by staying mum from first cut to last stitch.

Nevertheless, the incident raised some big questions I’ve always tried to answer. Why do doctors do that to us? Have medical students become so disposable that exposing our weaknesses has become a source of humor?
I’ve heard some theories to why humiliation is perpetuated in the medical field, and it’s just as simple as the rationalization of hazing. Our medical predecessors at some point had to go through it, and therefore we must go through it. Traditionally, hazing is used to increase dedication and a sense of brother or sisterhood, and that somehow through the process of demeaning someone will make them a better soldier. But ultimately it creates resentment, hatred, and disrespect of an institution. Everyone can agree that these have no place in medicine. Medical training is difficult enough without creating an antagonistic workspace where patient-focused thought is diverted by social angst and anger towards one’s team members.

So, what is a medical student supposed to do in a situation like this? Do we retaliate and stand up for ourselves? Or do we take the hits because we’re next in long line of medical professionals who once got screamed at by our superiors?
As much as it would feel good in the moment to retaliate and be heard, antagonism of any kind will not work out well for you. If you backtalk to anyone, it can and will come back to you in a negative way when your little “victory speech” plants an ugly red flag on your evaluation. And these days with the ever-increasing competition for residency among medical students, you’ll just be giving programs one big reason to reject you outright. After all, residency programs are looking for students who will be team players, not martyrs.

To my fellow students, I urge you to be strong. Brush it off. Vent in a safe place and then let the anger go. It is not worth your stress, your sleep, or your time to ruminate over someone else trying to put a dent in your dignity. Just remember that the next day, or a few hours from now when rounds start, is a new opportunity to get the question right or cut the suture the way the doctor wants it cut.

Medical students are here to learn. We are here to answer your questions and be given assignments until we learn something new and fascinating. We are here to think and serve the patients. But we are not here to be laughed at and made to look foolish. Save your laughter for when something really funny happens.

Like if you ever see a girl walking around Florida with a crocheted scarf around her neck. You have my permission to laugh at that sweaty little goofball.

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Elizabeth McKinnon

Elizabeth McKinnon

A lifelong lover of books and the stage, Elizabeth set out to write her first book in college and her second one while she was working as a medical assistant at a dermatologist's office. In her spare time, she writes plays and short stories and enjoys sharing them with friends and family. She plans to pursue a writing career in medical fiction and is currently working on her third book. Elizabeth is a Pathology Resident at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Elizabeth McKinnon

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