Nearly two years ago, I sat with my younger sister at the airport in Houston, Texas waiting for our respective flights. She was going back home to New Jersey, and I was headed back to California. While waiting, she passed the time browsing SAT prep sites on her iPad. Her oldest child, my nephew, was starting his junior year of high school that fall, and she wanted to make sure his summer was well spent, and that he had the opportunity to prepare for the exam which would determine his future college options. As she talked about the merits of one approach over another—classroom instruction versus private tutoring– I felt my anxiety level rising like an uncomfortable expanding bubble in my chest, gradually cutting off my air supply. The pressure was palpable. After listening for a few minutes, I said to her, “Please stop talking about this—you’re making me very nervous and I’m not even TAKING the exam.” She looked at me in surprise, and we moved to other topics.
On Sunday evening on our way out to dinner, I went with my daughter to take sign out from the intern who was leaving the ward service the next day, and turning the very sick patients over to my daughter’s care. I tried to position myself unobtrusively, in the far corner of the residents dictating room, sinking as deep into the shelter of my wrinkled hooded raincoat as I could, but even from my self made cocoon I could hear them discussing in hushed tones the low platelet counts, the mucosal bleeding, the fevers unresponsive to antibiotics in these acute leukemic patients. It was seven pm after a long weekend on call, and the interns and residents looked exhausted. The white cubicles and the scuffed linoleum on the floor reflected the fluorescent ceiling lights overhead. The faint smell of stale fried food and sweat combined to form a vaguely nauseating aura. Suddenly I was transported back thirty-five years to my own internship, and to my first night on the cancer service and in that instant, I felt every bit of anxiety that I felt so many years ago. For anyone who has done an intensive medicine or surgery residency, these feelings form the impetus to learn and become competent—the overwhelming sense that a human being’s life is in your hands, and this night, and every night, you must be vigilant; you must perform and do your very best. The end of shift can never come soon enough.
It’s been many years since I taught a class of high school students, or staffed an inpatient service run by interns and residents. But if I ever do either again my recent “flashbacks” will serve me well. It’s good to remember the fear and tension associated with being a learner in a stressful situation. Teaching has always been a passion for me, and those are the memories and feelings which will make me a better teacher.