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The Differential

When the Cape Wears on You

olajibade, Medical Student, 11:44PM Jul 6, 2013

I know many medical students have a bit of a God/Superman complex. After all, we're currently in the business of learning to save lives, a fact made more obvious when people ask you to diagnose a mole they have or something else after they find out you're in medical school. To say that I am fascinated by superheroes is more than a gross oversimplification (I wrote my AMCAS essay on how superheroes inspired me to want to pursue medicine). It's more than the fact that they stand for "Truth, Justice and the American Way" (I'm a dual citizen so that last bit is kind of hard). But at the heart of every superhero is an intricate calculus deciding when they can and cannot -- rather, should not -- use their powers. I'm coming to realize that sometimes medicine is the same way. 

Recently I've been working with a local organization administering community surveys and trying to assess the needs of the different neighborhoods that we visit. I've seen parts of town that have never been on my radar. Few things shock me anymore. I've seen similar and worse levels of poverty in other places. But I have been taken aback by how quick I've been to want to diagnose the survey participants. A little girl in one of the houses has been complaining of an earache and I start asking patient encounter questions and clicking on my penlight. I meet an overweight lady and I start thinking about her HbA1c and glucose levels. The elderly man with a tracheostomy and surgical scars with obviously poorly controlled eczema left me wondering what other conditions were underlying his presentation. In all cases I restrained myself as I'm still only a ¼ of a doctor and being one is not in my current job description. Still, it was hard to see so many of my survey participants not get the needed healthcare, especially a little boy I saw with severe cognitive defects. 

So, back to superheroes for a second... the new Superman adaptation called "Man of Steel" -- apart from pushing the bounds of what the hero is allowed to do in a first movie -- is a great study in how and when one should use their powers. There is a scene after a young Clark Kent saves the lives of his classmates, leaving his parents to deal with the fallout. Mr. Kent takes Clark aside to talk about the consequences of his actions and Clark replies "What was I supposed to do? Let them die?" Mr. Kent doesn't respond at first which is telling in itself. That and some other occurrences lead Clark to a life of perpetual nomadism, saving lives when he can but disappearing right after. 

That's the same question I asked when I met and got to know these people. Granted, their lives weren't in any apparent emergent danger but that didn't stop me from wanting to help in some way. Realistically, there isn't much I could have done and there won't be for a few more years. So I've had to reconcile myself to doing what I can. It's not easy for a stereotypical type A personality like many people I know but it has to be for now. Being too brash especially when underprepared is both a danger to you and those around you. Sometimes it's easy, like when a lady told me her nephew was hospitalized for complications of gout. I told her what I knew, largely because it was on the exam I took days prior: avoid alcohol; avoid meat especially red meat; cherries help some people, soak his joints in warm water during attacks. Apparently, no one had told her any of this before. Hopefully her nephew's gout will be better controlled from now on. My work was done. I can fade into the shadows again, biding my time until I'm ready to don the coat of a fully minted doctor.

Live. Love. Heal.

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