University Heart Grand OpeningZippity Doo Dah gives to BCHTomorrow. Every Day.Jackson Free Clinic
Published in Alumni Publications on July 28, 2014
Eight students agreed to relate some of medical school’s defining moments for them. They are, back row, from left: Toi Spates, Madiha Ahmad and Bradley Deere; second row, from left, Allison Pace, Savannah Duckworth and Jennie Thomas; front row, from left, Will Fuller and Marla Chapman.
Eight students agreed to relate some of medical school’s defining moments for them. They are, back row, from left: Toi Spates, Madiha Ahmad and Bradley Deere; second row, from left, Allison Pace, Savannah Duckworth and Jennie Thomas; front row, from left, Will Fuller and Marla Chapman.

Students remember the seminal moments that changed them

Medical school is a crucible. By the end of their first or second year, students have squeezed in more searing, emotional “firsts” than many people encounter in decades, if ever.

As Allison Pace put it, “The list of firsts goes on: my first time to see a kidney transplant, the first time I saw a human brain, … the first time my dad asked me for medical advice, the first time I aced a test in pharmacology, the first time I didn’t ace a test in biochemistry …

“The first time I saw death, life, hope, and despair in the medical realm. The first time I made a difference in a patient’s life.”

We asked eight to tell their stories about their firsts. 

THE FIRST WEEK

JENNIE THOMAS 

My world was in upheaval. Just a few days into that first week, I called my mom and told her that I just couldn’t do it. I was lost in this shuffle of never enough studying, never enough sleeping; yet doing nothing outside of the UMMC campus and my small apartment. I felt so inadequate, sick from the formaldehyde stench of the gross anatomy lab, stressed over the little idiosyncrasies of life. Thursday morning came and I rode the elevator to the seventh (anatomy) floor. I walked down the hall with rows of (unlocked) lockers until I reached my own, opened it, and panicked. My anatomy textbook was gone. I had my first mini-mental breakdown of medical school.

THE FIRST “PATIENT”: GROSS ANATOMY

SAVANNAH DUCKWORTH

Nothing prepares you for this class. In college biology, I had dissected sharks and cats. It was worlds different. The first week, we were all scared. We had that deer-in-the-headlights look. So I walk in the first day, and it strikes me that my first patient is a person.

WILL FULLER 

They tell you about gross anatomy, how difficult a course it will be. You can read about it and watch videos about it, but until you are actually there, you don’t get a full grasp of it. It was more intense than I expected.

MADIHA AHMAD 

I was unsure of how I would react to seeing a cadaver for the first time. I remember a very distinct smell catching me by surprise. It made the pit of my stomach churn even more. 

WILL FULLER

The cadaver was face-down, on the table. We had to roll it over. Seeing the cadaver’s face for the first time was a surreal moment. I started thinking, “This is somebody’s mother, somebody’s child, someone in this world who was loved.”  You’re trying to do the task at hand, but in the back of my mind, all of that is also there.

MADIHA AHMAD 

I slowly made my way to my assigned cadaver and met my lab partners. We were instructed to open the tanks and raise the cadavers. I told my partners I wasn’t sure if I could do this. They were both guys, so they told me not to worry; they would handle it. As they raised the body and unwrapped the white sheets, I had to step back for a moment before I could look. The cadaver looked nothing like I expected.

TOI SPATES

It’s a different feeling there. It’s the step you have to overcome as a medical student. You have to get past this. But it should be personal. It is personal.

MADIHA AHMAD 

I was so thankful for my two lab partners on that first day and throughout the semester. Some of the uneasiness began to wash away. I could do this. 

TOI SPATES

The most endearing moment comes when you try to figure out what the person was like. You can’t know names, but you can know where they lived. He was an older man. He lived in Mississippi. He had been excited to join our donor program. He wanted to help us, and he did; he allowed a bunch of students to learn. For him to trust us with that responsibility meant a lot. He was more than just a way to learn.

SAVANNAH DUCKWORTH

I was overwhelmed with a feeling of respect. I felt honored, but I also felt out of place. Very naïve. But, as the semester went on, I realized this person was teaching  me more than any professor could. 

TOI SPATES 

Until then, you have never been that close to someone.

THE FIRST PATIENT INTERVIEW

MARLA CHAPMAN

The exhilaration of interviewing a patient by myself for the first time was so strong that I found myself practically skipping down the ER. My patient was an elderly Caucasian man, hunched forward in his bed, with mildly labored breathing. His wife was seated on a chair beside the bed with a rather impatient look on her face.

SAVANNAH DUCKWORTH

There was this patient at the Jackson Free Clinic who had Crohn’s disease [an inflammatory bowel condition] and he’d had it for years. He didn’t have insurance, so, as far as treatment, he kept falling off the wagon. He looked me in the eye and told me his history. 

MARLA CHAPMAN

After about five minutes, his wife requested that I stop asking her husband questions because she was afraid that he was about to pass out. I assured her that his vital signs were stable and that we were closely monitoring his heart and oxygen. I explained that I was a student and that it was very important for me to be thorough. She then said, much more forcefully, “Well, that is enough! A student should know her place. When will we get to see the real doctor?”

SAVANNAH DUCKWORTH 

He had been in a fight as a kid and been cut; he’d lost part of his eye and now had a prosthesis. He would take it out for us. He still comes to the clinic and still takes his eye out. He loves to show it off.

MARLA CHAPMAN

I began to get extremely hot and I could feel my face turning red. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. One of the nurses poked her head around the curtain and asked if everything was OK. The patient’s wife said, “No. We were doing just fine until that girl walked into the room.” I looked at the nurse for reassurance and then back at the patient’s wife. I said, “OK, ma’am. I’ll go find my upper level resident, and we’ll get back to you.” She said, “That’s what I thought. You’d better run along.”

SAVANNAH DUCKWORTH 

He was the first patient I ever gave a shot to; it was a B-12 shot. I was absolutely terrified.

MARLA CHAPMAN 

[At her resident’s request, Marla Chapman and the resident confront the patient’s wife together. The resident keeps her composure and “gets the situation under control.”]

[One of the things] I learned from this experience is that stress, fear and apprehension about loved ones can cause even the nicest people to act out of character. 

SAVANNAH DUCKWORTH 

Now the man with Crohn’s disease gives the shots to himself, every month. I’ve gone back to the clinic almost every Saturday [Duckworth became the clinical director]. I really felt honored seeing him and hearing his story. I thought, “This is why I’m here.” 

MARLA CHAPMAN

A few days later, my patient’s wife sought me out in the hallway and apologized. She even gave me a hug.  

THE FIRST REALITY CHECK

SAVANNAH DUCKWORTH

You can’t predict how you’ll respond. It was November; the hospital was about to send a patient back home. He was doing better, sitting up and eating. I talked with him and his family. A couple of hours later, there was a code. He had blood clots in his leg. I went with him to the ICU.

MADIHA AHMAD

I entered the room and saw her sitting up in the chair beside the bed. I asked if I could pull up a chair next to her. We both sat quietly, but comfortably, for a minute or two. Then she asked me to explain the illness to her. She didn’t understand how three months ago she was living a normal life. I had never had a discussion about death with a patient.

SAVANNAH DUCKWORTH

They tried to bring him back with chest compression. I stayed in the corner. It was very crowded in there. No one asked me to leave, but I wasn’t about to. Because I was the only person in the room he had ever talked to.

WILL FULLER

This was my third year in medical school; it was at the VA. There was a patient with liver failure. The prognosis was bad. Every morning we had gone in together to see this patient, the whole team. So we kind of got to know him. We were emotionally drained.

MADIHA AHMAD

She asked me several questions and I tried to answer them the best way I knew how. Our conversation turned to her life; she shared her personal stories and her journey. At the end, she told me she appreciated that I had come to talk to her, and she felt better. She told me I would be a great physician because I had taken the time to comfort her.

WILL FULLER

We went in in the morning and said, “We’ve done everything we can do; there’s nothing else we can do.” The family was around and they were upset. But they appreciated everything we did. This was my first experience having to tell someone that. He was my patient. 

SAVANNAH DUCKWORTH

Later, I asked the attending physician if it was appropriate to send his wife a letter – telling her that her husband was more than a patient to us; that we regretted we couldn’t help him. So I did. It really affected me because we had told him he was going home. It made me wonder: When I have patients I’ve known a long time – how much harder will it be? But I don’t want it to ever not become a big deal. I want to take some of that feeling with me when I go home every day. Because it’s an honor to take care of people.

BRADLEY DEERE

Prior to a routine surgery, the patient’s husband confided in me that his wife did not want to be resuscitated if she lost her pulse or stopped breathing. I reassured him that the procedure would be successful and she’d be discharged home soon.  I was devastated when she did not survive. Looking back, I realized that her husband confided her end-of-life wishes with me because he sensed that she did not have much longer to live. It was a humbling experience. 

SAVANNAH DUCKWORTH

I’m grateful that I got to know him for as long as I did. The man was from Mendenhall. Every time I drive through Mendenhall I think of him. I had known him for about an hour.

THE FIRST CHILD

WILL FULLER

The kids were really great to work with. One kid who was 15 had Down’s syndrome. He was so fun and loving. He kept wanting to put me in a headlock and give me a noogie; that made the day more interesting.

MADIHA AHMAD

He was 5 and had come to the sickle cell clinic for a transfusion. At first, he was very shy and didn’t feel comfortable with me. I decided to inquire about the Spider-man action figure in his hand. I let him listen to his own heart with my stethoscope, hoping that he could hear what I could barely make out. Then I stepped out of the room. When I returned, he was smiling at me and poking his mom, saying, “Ask her, mommy; ask her.” His mom said, “He’s asking if you could be his doctor from now on.”

JENNIE THOMAS

She was a single mother; this being her first pregnancy, she was keeping the gender a surprise. I had my gown and mask ready, and I laced up my surgery boots; I was not going to miss this opportunity. For hours, everyone could hear me coming by the sound of the boots as I walked up and down the hall to check on my patient. I began to wonder if she would have her baby before the shift change. But she was ready. My great resident helped me deliver a healthy baby. I will never forget when I looked up at the patient, with tears in my eyes, and said, “It’s a girl!” 

ALLISON PACE 

It was during my ob/gyn rotation; the team had to break the news to this 26-weeks pregnant woman that her baby had significant heart defects, likely had Down syndrome and probably wouldn’t survive the delivery. I cried with her as I listened while she walked through her decisions. The next day, I saw my first preemie birth – the tiny little baby with Trisomy 21, delivered by C-section and whisked off to the NICU – crying and alive.