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Caring, Character & Calling: Learning How to Carry the Burden

Did you ever have a teacher who changed your course or your life? Someone whose habits, actions, insights and integrity made you want to follow in their footsteps? Dell Medical School students share personal stories of profound influencers in this blog series.

All members of the Dell Medical School community are welcome to submit stories of teachers or mentors whose character moved them and made a difference in their development. This story is shared by Evelyn Bodenschatz, student at Dell Med.

I see my hands shaking in front of me, my vision blurry as I concentrate on keeping the tears welling up from overflowing. That first day in the anatomy lab was unbearable; no amount of preparation could have helped. I just have to desensitize myself; I just have to get over it, I thought, disgusted with myself. I had come to medical school having suffered two deaths of immediate family members and have lived most of my life in the aftermath of this grief. These traumas have haunted me throughout my medical education, and it was not until one physician addressed similar traumas in his life that they became bearable. With such a close and personal experience with death, I thought that working with cadavers would be a small feat by comparison. But while it was not comparable to losing a loved one, the grief that this experience brought up was uniquely heartbreaking, and each week was worse than the last.

Don’t you want to be a surgeon?

You know surgeons have to cut people open, right?

I heard in the back of my head, even as I touched the irregular borders of lung cancer on a dissected cadaver, seeing the man and life behind it. Like my own father, my own life. I quickly began to question not only my ability to be the surgeon I wanted to be, but my emotional capacity of being a physician at all. I had suffered so much in my life, I thought I was perfectly well trained to handle these emotional tolls. Now, seeing my dramatic and emotional reactions to the cadavers — my faith wavered.

I moved on with the many other skills and talents that come with being a doctor. But I went through the first half of my clinical rotations with that voice in the back of my head. And as I watched patients on my neurology team die and as my psychiatry team mourned a completed suicide on the inpatient psychiatric wards, that voice got louder. And this time, it was crueler.

Don’t you want to be a doctor?

You know patients die all the time, right?

This voice persisted. Even still, after clinical rotations and boards exams, it persists. But it was a video recording from an old mentor, during a pandemic, that really taught me how to reinterpret those words. Here was a successful practicing physician, telling my story back to me. He described the exact fear of an emotional reaction to the anatomy lab, the doubt that seeded in him in his ability to be a strong and competent physician, and I heard the soft cracks in his voice, even as he told this story years later. The similarities between us had been so striking to me that I saw myself in him – with one profound difference: he was already a competent, compassionate, and caring physician. For the first time in my life, certainly in my medical education, I saw proof that I could be one, too.

Months later, as I rotated through the trauma service and experienced an entirely new, but similar wave of heartbreak and devastation, I thought of that video. I saw the capability and poignance that came from someone so much like me. I heard the fear and grief in his voice that mirrored how I feel every day. I felt the bravery and strength he showed by sharing this vulnerable story and succeeding through his grief — allowing it to heighten his skills as a physician. As I cried myself to sleep after another gunshot wound victim that we could not save, I thought of the words he wrote later to me:

Do realize how brave you are for becoming a physician and working through the discomfort, and possible trauma, of helping others who may be facing death and dying.

He helped me realize that, while what I have suffered is a difficult weight to carry, it did not have to limit me. While I struggled through a lot of the experiences of medical school more than some of my classmates, I will still be able to become a caring and strong physician. I had never realized the importance of having that representation, that understanding, until I received it. I did not need permission from the medical school faculty and my classmates to carry the weight of my losses with me, as I had been so desperately asking for all those months ago while working in the anatomy lab.

I did not need to desensitize myself from those losses or find a way to let go of that burden. I just needed someone to show me how to carry it.

The Kern National Network for Caring & Character in Medicine (KNN) is a national network of seven medical schools dedicated to advance caring and character in medicine with the goal of promoting human flourishing. Guided by the principles of caring and character, the KNN provides a framework for training physicians, strengthening joy in medicine and improving health to promote human flourishing within, across and beyond the medical profession to positively impact individuals and communities in our society.

This initiative was made possible through support from the Kern National Network for Caring & Character in Medicine through an investment from the Kern Family Trust and Kern Family Foundation.