Recently I started a volunteer shift at my local hospital, working in the ER department. Given that I was only a volunteer, and not part of the actual medical staff, my duties were fairly limited. I was in charge of crowd control, which essentially consisted of redirecting the waves of patients that walked in towards the appropriate waiting area, making sure they were comfortable, helping them fill out any paperwork etc. Nevertheless it took only one shift for me to bear witness to things I never thought I would see in my lifetime. As expected of an ER, patients who walked in carried a multitude of injuries, everything from lacerations to stab wounds to respiratory issues.
Despite my inexperience however, these sights were easy to get used to. (This I later learned was not true for everyone, as the woman who had my shift before had to transfer to a different department since she could not stop crying over what she saw.) In fact, what stood out to me was the remarkable resilience many of the patients showed despite their injuries. In the face of great pain and discomfort, many of them kept level heads, and even managed a smile or two during their time in the waiting room. These however, more often than not, were people with relatively mild non-life threatening injuries. What ended up really testing my mettle was the other end of the spectrum. Often it was those that did not have injuries that were the most heart rending. These people were the families of those that had life threatening injuries. And despite the fact that they were surrounded by stab wounds, infections and fevers, it was these people who looked the most pained.
What I came to realize soon enough was that it was not simply having a loved one in the hospital that caused them such grief, but not knowing the condition of the loved one that drove them to near madness. To hear the pain and fear in the voice as they asked me again and again how their brother or mother was doing was heart wrenching and left a twisted knot on my throat, a dreaded feeling that was only surpassed by the gut wrenching feeling left in my stomach when I was forced to tell them over and over again, “I don’t know.” It was then that I learned an important lesson. They say that to be a doctor you are required to have several things. A 4.0 GPA, clinical experience, a high MCAT score, recommendation letters, etc, all of which are vital towards proving that one is capable of being a doctor.
There is one more requirement however, that they don’t tell you. Within the first few minutes of my shift, my mentor took me aside and said to me, “We have a saying around here. If you cannot show mercy to the humblest human being, then you belong somewhere else.” It is surprisingly easy to forget that many times, doctors are not simply dealing with wounds of the flesh, but emotional trauma as well. When your patients and their loved ones are full of despair and fear, it is not enough to be intelligent. At times like those, a doctor must possess one thing above all else. Mercy.