When Aunty X Asks About Her DiabetAs: privilege, responsibility and humility in med school

By: Sumeet Khanna – Class of 2015

The Miramba ringtone.

Caller ID tells me it’s…AUNTY X.

“Sumeet?” I hear trepidation and anxiety.

“Hi Aunty X. How are -”

“I’m taking a pill.” She finishes the thought, expecting me to know precisely what she’s talking about. I don’t. But I take a moment to relax and probe further.

“Are you okay?”

“Doctor tells me it’s for diabetAs. I didn’t take it yesterday because I was watching the Coronation Street marathon. Is that ok?”

“I think so? I wouldn’t know, really. I’m not a real doctor yet. If you’re worried you should call the pharmacist, or even arrange an appointment with your family doc.”

A pause.

“So I live?” she asks, her voice sounding warm and assured. “Good. It’s such a blessing to have a doctor in the family.”

My intuition is that this scenario, albeit a little eccentric, reflects what a lot of you – my fellow med student peers – have encountered at least once since you received that magical letter from Hogwarts. Things change when we’re in med school, right? All of a sudden we’re sautéed in a new, colourful, healthy stir-fry of cultural judgements and expectations…when in fact many of us still don’t exercise enough, still eat the bad stuff, and most frustratingly of all, still don’t know most “things” about medicine (or if we do we’re not allowed to execute them without extensive supervision and bouts of perspiration). So there’s dissonance between how people perceive us, how we perceive ourselves, and objective reality. There’s a meme for that, I think.

One thing we can say for sure, though, is that we’re treated differently than before. Aunty X proves that in the above anecdote. Here’s another one. I go to see a doctor about some back pain. She reads my file, sees I’m a med student, and BOOM! I’m invited to give a differential diagnosis, scroll up-to-date with her, and converse with her about the merits of PBL and EBM. But I’m in pain. Lots of pain. So despite the half-awkward smile I’m wearing, not-so-deep-inside I’m cursing like Pooh when he has to work extra hard to get his honey. In a british accent, of course.

The title of “medical student” is one steeped in power and privilege; we now belong to a highly revered profession of patient-care and societal good, and it’s important to recognize that status doesn’t just take-up space – it transforms it. Sometimes we find ourselves in the doctor’s office complaining of back pain and the space is occupied by open declarations of titles and accolades. The conversation noticeably changes. But sometimes we find ourselves in more insidious situations; “medical student” informs our actions, our judgements, our choices and our beliefs in ways we seldom realize.

I’m alluding to an identity politics that is both within and outside of our control. We are medical students, and we cannot disregard the narrative to which we’re literally buying-in. But there’s something I firmly believe. Privilege confers responsibility. We can’t minimize or wish away our privilege, and we should definitely avoid abusing it in order to assert a false sense of superiority. What we can do, however, is use our privilege to open-up space for others. To temper our egos by listening to human stories of joy, suffering, love and resilience. To reflect and do good wherever possible as people and not just as medical students, in order to remind ourselves that we can derive meaning outside of our professionally-defined selves. To not be overwhelmed by our duty to do no harm, and to instead be encouraged by our ability to participate in larger networks of healing.

The Aunty X’s of the world will always be with us. So, let’s not take ourselves too too seriously, but let’s also remember to embrace the Aunty X’s with profound devotion and humility, because really, that’s what we all deserve.

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