One night early in my internship, I received a frantic page for help from a fellow intern.
Seasoned nurses had been unable to draw a patient’s blood, which senior doctors had ordered be done if his fever spiked, so they’d called the covering doctor, the first-year resident on call. For more than an hour he had poked at the patient’s arms and legs, littering the floor with blood-stained gauzes, used alcohol swabs and crumpled syringe and needle packaging. When the patient finally kicked him out of the room, howling, “I’ll hit you if you come near me again!” he called the only people he thought he could: the other interns.
“We didn’t have to draw blood in medical school,” he confessed, his eyes red behind his Harry Potter spectacles. “My med school didn’t think it was important for us to learn.”
One of us did manage to get the required blood, but for the rest of the week, we were haunted by the feeling that any one of us could easily have been in the same situation.
We had all endured four years of medical school, and we believed that all our lectures, exams and national standardized tests had made us ready to be real doctors, or at least capable interns. But the reality was that in some cases, we were unable to carry out even the most routine duties.
The intern who did get the patient’s blood on her first try had had plenty of phlebotomy experience in medical school. But she confessed she didn’t know how to prepare a patient for surgery, and had had to ask another intern to write the pre-op checklist on an index card that she could keep in her white coat pocket. The intern who wrote up the checklist came from a medical school where students prepared a lot of patients for surgery but rarely did anything in the operating room. When asked to assist on a minor procedure during her first week, she had been so awkward and unsure of herself that the scrub nurse burst out laughing.