By Whitney Jin
I currently attend medical school in the Texas Medical Center (TMC)—the largest medical center in the world. It truly is its own concrete jungle–I joke that while looking for apartments to live in for medical school, I prioritized the TMC skyline over the downtown skyline for a more fitting view. As a student still in the preclinical curriculum, I find that it becomes tempting (and comforting) to fall into a routine of classes, clinics, co-curriculars, and catching up on sleep. The two-mile radius between campus and its adjacent hospitals means that the vast majority of students spend most of their productive hours in a classroom, hospital, or a research lab. While it is a true privilege to be surrounded by so many patients, with diverse backgrounds and illnesses, we must remember that within medical facilities, we only meet patients at a snapshot moment in their lives. That thirty-minute appointment in the clinic or the two-hour long operation in the OR only allow us transient access to patient stories. I believe that deepening the connection we have with our local and surrounding communities can help us understand the contexts in which people live, which can in-turn improve the care we provide for our patients.
The Social dimension of the Wellness Model (National Wellness Institute) suggests that contributing to one’s own community and environment highlights the interdependence between us and the world we live in. It says:
“You’ll take an active part in improving our world by encouraging healthier living and initiating better communication with those around you.”
I believe this encapsulates the mentality that we as surgeons (and surgeons-in-training) should have—as healers, we should not only strive to heal the injured but also connect with our patients and their stories. This past summer, I was able to work with the vascular surgery department at our Veterans Affairs hospital. In clinic, I saw gangrenous limbs and patients recovering from amputations. In the OR, I assisted with amputations and bypass grafts for patients with peripheral artery disease, secondary to diabetes and smoking in many cases. As patients were getting prepped, many shared their stories with me and the rest of the operating team, perhaps as an attempt to lessen any pre-op anxiety or as a desire to connect on a personal and human level. These brief conversations, which often centered around family, stories from the armed forces, and personal interests, always reminded me that patients were more than just bodies to be maneuvered or fixed within a sterile operating field. It was always more personal than that.
During my time at the VA, I also noticed a significant population of veterans who experienced homelessness. Many patients would undergo emergency life-saving amputations but would be left to fend for themselves in the post-recovery process when they would have no place to return to but the streets. This constantly reminded me of my time volunteering at the HOMES (Houston Outreach Medicine Education and Social Services) Clinic during my first year of medical school, where I also crossed paths with many veterans. As context, the HOMES Clinic is a primarily student-run clinic that serves to integrate community outreach, medical and social services, and a holistic approach to healthcare to serve Houstonians with unstable housing. From encounters at the HOMES Clinic, I witnessed how the lack of access to employment, housing, insurance, transportation, and access to basic necessities could directly impede recovery and rehabilitation. Ultimately, even if a surgeon prescribes a blood thinner or stents open the aorta, a patient is unlikely to recover without proper health education, post-operative care, or access to medication.
I encourage each of us to continually reflect on the social dimension of wellness. I believe that my experiences with the HOMES Clinic and other outreach organizations will complement my future role as a surgeon. There are innumerable avenues through which we can better connect with the world around us, whether it be through volunteering in our local communities, advocating for the voiceless or marginalized patient, or broadening our presence to beyond the hospital walls. If we view our patients in isolation, we only deprive ourselves of the bigger picture that our patients exist within.
Learn more about the HOMES Clinic here.
Whitney Jin, originally from Naperville, IL, is currently a second-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. She graduated with a B.A from Rice University and is thrilled to continue her medical school education just across the street. She is interested in pursuing academic surgery, although she remains undecided on which surgical specialty just yet. You can find her on Instagram or Twitter at @whitneyjin_.
Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.