I am currently on hold with customer service for American Airlines, which almost didn’t give me a seat on my flight leaving Quito this week. Waiting on hold is usually one of the most frustrating experiences that a person can have, but it has given me some time to reflect on my time abroad this summer.
The past six weeks I have been living in Quito, Ecuador with five other medical students and a student from the school of public health. We were working on several different projects. I was assessing depression in a cancer hospital with one other medical student from Michigan and an Ecuadorian medical student. My mentor on this project told me that working with terminally ill patients is something that most students do not do until their third year of medical school and many students do not have time to talk with patients for long periods of time during their clinical training. She encouraged us to get to know patients undergoing cancer treatment while we had the opportunity to spend unrestricted amounts of time with them.
We went into the project hoping to make connections with patients, but we were met with much more openness and emotion than we had anticipated. A patient cried in front of me at least once a day. Patients told us about how cancer had changed their bodies and their families. But there were also patients who told me about how joyful they felt as they reflected on their lives. Often patients would tell me that they did not fear death, because they believed in God and heaven. I think the patients that surprised me the most were those who told me that they felt that cancer had changed them for the better. They told me stories about how they improved their relationships, their religious practice, and their outlook on life when they were diagnosed.
The research this summer went very well. We recruited a lot of patients and surpassed our goals. Nevertheless, I don’t feel that conducting research helped me grow as a medical student nearly as much as these conversations with patients. I’ve seen that every patient has a singular perception of his or her diagnosis. In the health care profession, patients are diagnosed and treated in a formulaic manner; but their reactions to their health are unique. I hope that I am able to take the conversations from this summer and reflect on them when I am in the hospital. Even when I have less time to communicate with patients, I would like to be able to hear about their individual perspectives on their health and treatment.