Op-Ed: Compassion Goes a Long Way in Medical Education

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“Want to come close the skin?”

I am a third-year medical student, and the OR is running over an hour behind schedule.

“Sure!” I say, my voice sounding more confident than I feel.

Hillary, the witty otolaryngology resident with whom I have been paired for the day, holds out the needle driver and forceps. This is my first surgical rotation, and I am like a kid after a growth spurt, all limbs and no coordination. Over the next few minutes, she softly encourages me: “Slower, slower … No need to rush … Pick up the skin … Enter at 90 degrees … Watch both your hands, but keep an eye on the needle … That’s better … Good.”

I try to slow down, but there is urgency in the room. The first case of the day ran long, and the entire schedule was thrown off. This case had its own challenges. They’re all waiting on me, I think.

And then it happens — I feel the needle pierce clear through my glove and into my finger. I shudder to a stop and my eyes fly up to meet Hillary’s, “Are you OK?” she asks, her concern visible through her protective glasses. “Did you poke yourself? Did it go all the way through the glove? Here, let me see.”

I want so badly to say no, but the prick of the needle tip was unmistakable. “Yes, I think so.” My cheeks turn red hot under my mask. We stare at the perfect pin-size hole in my glove. There is an audible sigh from someone in the room.

“OK, don’t worry, it’s OK. Scrub out, wash your hands, and come back in.” Hillary becomes an orchestra conductor, quickly and carefully guiding the team through next steps, coordinating the necessary paperwork, and ensuring the patient’s safety and mine. I step away from the table, rip off my surgical gown, and drop it in the trash along with my pride on my way to the scrub sink. I think: “Who pokes themselves with a needle?! I’m a mess. I’ll never be able to do this.” The phrases spin around me in a suffocating cloud.

The case wraps up and I watch quietly as Hillary completes her handoff to the post-anesthesia care unit staff. She sits down at a computer and, like a million times before, I wait for her to log in, but she doesn’t. “Hey,” she turns to face me, “Do you want to debrief?”

I know she still needs to finish the orders, complete the note, and check patients from earlier. I know it’s a Friday at 7:50 p.m. I know she has a million other places to be, and yet the sincerity in her voice allows me to slowly nod my head, yes.

She leads me into one of the empty PACU slots and pulls the curtain. “Listen,” she says, a steady firmness in her voice. “You did nothing wrong. We’ve all stuck ourselves, even the best surgeons.”

I look at my hands and sob. “OK.” She has seen me. She knows my doubts. She realizes what I have been telling myself.

“Girl,” Hillary smiles knowingly, “we all make mistakes.” She shares a story of her own. And as we stand in the recovery room, she waits for me to recover. Finally, the cloud of shame trailing behind me lifts.

I will never forget that moment: her compassion, her ability to create a space to debrief a difficult experience, her vulnerability, and her humanity. Shrouded from the outside world by a PACU curtain, Hillary reminded me that I belonged.

Every medical trainee deserves a “Hillary.” Many have met theirs, others have not — but there is likely a “Hillary” inside each of us. Slow down, find your inherent compassion, and share it. We could use a lot more people like Hillary in medical education today.

Olivia Davies is a graduating fourth-year medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin who will be starting her internal medicine preliminary year at Massachusetts General Hospital this summer; she will then join the 2025 Harvard-Combined Dermatology Residency Class. She adapted this story from her Twitter thread posted in February in honor of the Gold Humanism Honor Society’s 2021 Thank a Resident Day.

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