Written by Marina Wang (c2018). Photo by Terry Thach (c2019).

He called me “Dr.” I am no doctor. Did he not hear me introduce myself as just a medical student? I open his chart full of tabs and labels but to me it is an angry mess of half-filled forms. Drowning under drug names, I barely have the sense to register that his medication list is empty. In his EMR I am confronted by bricks of consult notes and attacked by numbers that jest at my incomprehension. I get lost within wards in the east that are labelled “South” and lock myself into a wandering-patient hallway.

He called me “Dr.” I am the furthest thing from being a doctor. Awkward silence fills the room as I struggle to remember my history questions. OPQRST. Options, plan, quarantine, reflux, steroids, treatment? “Is there pain?” I ask him as he wilts away hyperventilating and near tears. No shit: there’s pain. Good. No actually: Bad. I run out of questions, certain that I’ve forgotten all the important ones. Clumsy and sweaty, I pull out my stethoscope to save myself. I hear his heartbeat… or is it my own?

He called me “Dr.” I cannot be his doctor. I look on helplessly as he laments his story of the frightening anguish he feels. Why does it hurt so? I don’t know. I am useless- wishing I can just hold this poor soul and bless away this undiagnosed monster. But I have to listen to his lungs now. It’s part of the exam.. My eyes water as I help lift him up from the bed, trying not to let his wince bother me. No crackles or wheeze, normal bilateral lung sounds. He is so heavy. He is so weak.

He called me “Dr.” I wish I knew how to be his doctor. He looks at me and I look at him. Is he really the one feeling pain or is he just mirroring my own face full of misery and despair? I am full of guilt. Guilt for not remembering which opioid is dilaudid. Guilt for not being able to do something more for the pain. Guilt for not being able to even offer an explanation. But mostly, guilt for not being the doctor he deserves.

And yet, he called me “Dr.”  he needs me to be his doctor. There is no one else right now. No one but me. So I tell him what I know, even though what I know is nothing. In fact no one on the ward has figured out what is wrong with him yet. And at that he laughs, boasting that he’s given us a real good problem to solve. I smile. And then I laugh. And then I start to remember how to be a functioning human being again. The silence is gone, replaced by small-talk in the middle of the ER. We speak of his family, of his hobbies, of the strange circumstance that brought him to the bed in front of me.

Because he called me “Dr.” so let me be his doctor. Though I can’t write orders or sign scripts, I am certain that I have some responsibility to him now. I search his charts and reveal information previously hidden in a forest of paperclips. I start to paint the art of medicine and hum the tune of consult notes. And from somewhere I have mustered up the courage to acknowledge the unknowns and the sympathy to know when he cannot tolerate more testing. And I look to him and vow to us both that we’ll smile and laugh again soon.

He still calls me “Dr.”. He shakes my hand vigorously for the last time. Nonchalantly, he asks how my studies are going and I realize that he knew all along I was a medical student. But of course it didn’t matter to him. It occurs to me that this ought to make me nervous, but it doesn’t anymore. He jokes again about how much trouble he’s been and we laugh, real uninhibited laughter. Then he jumps off the bed, out the door, and into the car back home. And me, I return to the wards ready to face a new challenge, understanding that the learning will never stop.

And one day, I will be the Dr.

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