Don’t impress, just express

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Post by Sunil K. Joshi
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The American Medical Student Association and the ABIM Foundation partnered to launch the Building Trust Essay Contest. Medical students were asked to reflect on a time where they built, lost, or restored trust in a health care setting.

It was my first day on the internal medicine rotation. A 77-year-old male, Mr. Marrow, had been admitted overnight for disseminated MSSA bacteremia. I went to his room and introduced myself.

“Good morning Mr. Marrow, my name is Sunil and I am the medical student on the medicine team that will be taking care of you.”

Before I could ask any questions, he looked up with his blue eyes, stared at me for a good ten seconds, and in a sharp tone said, “Who let you into this country?”

His words were palpable. I felt my face, hidden behind an N-95, go pale. My hands and feet went numb. Still, I plodded forward with the lessons my parents always instilled within me: Do your part well and with purpose.

I gently deflected his comment: “I am happy to tell you more about myself, but we should focus on getting you better first. I am worried you have an infection in your blood that needs to be treated before it worsens.”

Despite his unwillingness to fully cooperate, I performed a focused physical exam. I walked out of his room, doffed my N-95, and took a deep breath of relief.

This was not my first experience with racism, nor will it be my last. But each experience has weighed on me. As I walked away, I was reminded of my very first patient experience from seven years ago when I began my journey as an MD/PhD student. My patient in that encounter thought I was their janitor. Two years ago, while running in my neighborhood one evening with a mask early during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was questioned and inspected by a police officer. I also recalled the feedback I received just last year as I began clinical rotations from a middle-aged, white male attending; he suggested that I religiously wear my white coat, exude overconfidence,apply hair gel, iron my clothes, and disclose that I have a PhD so that patients took me more seriously.

And so, my experience with Mr. Marrow was no exception, but rather part of a continuum. Despite this, my interaction with him unique because there was no ambiguity in what he was inferring. To him, my dark skin and thick black hair coupled with a masked face were not to be trusted.

Given his comment, it would have been very easy for me to request being reassigned to a different patient. However, that would not be a solution but merely a compromise. Systems only change if people change. To change people, initiating dialogue is essential. I chose to continue working with Mr. Marrow.

Over my 4-week rotation, I consulted various specialists to drain the many pockets of infection that were seeding throughout his body. Despite his relentless pain, I made every effort to comfort him. Such efforts led us to develop rapport, laugh together, and most importantly build trust. This was most evident when I held his hand through the placement of his chest tube to drain an infected area in his right lung. A procedure that he had delayed for too long, given his anxiety and ongoing pain.

He saw me at the procedure and burst into tears. He looked up yet again with his blue eyes and said, “Thank you for being here. It means so much.”

The next day during morning rounds, Mr. Marrow stopped me and said, “My initial words were extremely racist for which I apologize.” He went on to say that he grew up where “everyone looked alike.” I was startled. No patient had ever apologized to me.

I walked away with a new sense of hope. I now recognize that for people to change, apart from initiating dialogue, building trust is paramount. Don’t impress, just express. And with time, Mr. Marrow began to trust me.  I’d like to believe that our rapport allowed him to be reflective. His newly gained insight reminds me that there is no age limit to growing. Importantly, no age limit to becoming more inclusive and open-minded.

On my last day, Mr. Marrow said “…I don’t know if my infection is gone but you are leaving me with a new perspective, one that I overlooked for years.

While he was simply expressing himself, in doing so, he impressed me.

My care for Mr. Marrow was no different from what I provided to other patients. I did nothing extra to impress him. I didn’t change my appearance or personality despite an attending’s suggestion. I simply continued to do my part with purpose.


Sunil K. Joshi is an MD/PhD student at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). He completed his PhD in cancer biology under the mentorship of Dr. Brian J. Druker. Sunil is passionate about empowering and advocating for patients from underserved and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities through clinical practice, scientific research, and education. He is currently applying for residency in internal medicine.

Building Trust Essay Contest Winners & Honorable Mentions