“What can I do to help?” As a medical student new to the wards, I have often struggled for ways to be more than an enthusiastic bystander. If life in the hospital were adapted for the theater, I would surely be typecast as “Eager Short White Coat”—energetic and easily occupied, yet, in the context of the classic “see one, do one, teach one” triptych, perpetually stuck at seeing. Opportunities to be helpful, however, sometimes emerge unexpectedly. The last day of my anesthesiology rotation, I followed my team to the labor and delivery operating rooms, where we found Mrs. Z., a 28-year-old woman whose slender figure was barely discernible under her gown.
“G1P0 here by herself, you know the drill,” announced the anesthesiologist, and the resident hurried into action. I dashed out of his way around the table and discovered that the patient looked rather like me, ethnically speaking, which was rare at this hospital. I introduced myself and extended my right hand; she winced as a cold cleansing sponge was applied to her back.
“You're going to feel some pressure,” the resident said. Mrs. Z. remained motionless.
“She doesn't really speak English,” a nurse hollered across the operating room.
Retreating to the other side, I tried to focus on the spinal needle and the resident's meticulous technique, but I was distracted by our patient's soft cries and the loneliness reflected in her eyes; perhaps it was the other way around. As the catheter was threaded, my attending turned to face me.
Medical students live for this moment—the chance to ask one startlingly excellent question that can at once challenge and impress. I usually pause during such moments to craft the perfect inquiry, but this time, there was no hesitation.
“Just one for the patient,” I replied, circling back to Mrs. Z. and again offering my hand, this time palm up. “Nin shuo guoyu ma?” Do you speak Mandarin?
Awaiting a response, I suddenly panicked, fearing I had insulted my attending or assumed too much about my patient. But Mrs. Z. smiled in surprise, and then she exhaled, fast and freely, her breath carrying away the heavy burden of unfamiliarity and isolation. As the sterile drapes were unfurled over her, she shared with me her anxiety that this C-section would prove she was unfit, physically and spiritually, to be a mother. Grasping her hand reassuringly, I realized how I, too, had been plagued by a gnawing uncertainty about belonging on the wards, and how Mrs. Z. and I had found common ground, first through language, and then by the respective new roles in our lives.
Mrs. Z. delivered a healthy baby girl, whom I had the privilege to hold as the anesthesiologist put an encouraging hand on my shoulder. “That was the best thing you could have done today,” he told me, “because you helped her do her job so that we could do ours.” Being helpful, I thought as I lay the baby in her mother's arms for the first time, is not always about finishing prerounds before the morning meeting or having an extra pair of gloves in my pocket. Rather, it is a thoughtful recognition of the kind of clinical care my colleagues would want to give and my patients to receive, and an honest awareness of my own instincts and abilities that I am, on occasion, uniquely able to employ in order to support both. With time, I know I will get to perform bedside procedures and manage complex illnesses; but, for now, while still an eager short white coat, I am learning to measure helpfulness not merely by what I can do for others but by what I can give of myself.