I am a third-year medical student at the end of my first month at the
hospital. I started work at 5:30 this morning, so I could finish by 5:00 PM
and get a haircut. I woke my patient at 5:35 to do the daily physical exam.
The 73-year old woman was groggy and angry and told me to go to hell. "I'm
sorry, I need to do this now." I am lying. I can do it four hours later, but
that means one more day without a haircut. It's okay, I tell myself. When
I get more efficient at this, I won't have to wake them this early. Mrs Jones
will wake up at 5:35 today, so my patients in the future won't have to. Then
I tell myself I'm full of it and laugh. The truck exhaust smells different
and sweet, unfamiliar. I am now more used to the smell of feet, armpits, pus
and sweat, vomit, soap and coffee. Coffee . . . It's been too long since my
last cup. Hospital coffee is terrible, but beggars can't be choosers. My last
patient, 33, has injected cocaine since he was 16. "I tried to stop, but I
need it, man." I smile, knowingly, respectful of his habit. I am also afraid
of him. "Watch the needle. Don't get stuck . . . "—a mantra in my mind
as I struggle through a procedure.