On the other end of the phone, a woman spoke with thinly-cloaked anxiety. Her voice didn’t tremble, but its composure was forced. I envisioned a woman accustomed to being in control and now robbed of it.
Most people wouldn’t like to be fielding this call, but I was excited. I was speaking with a patient
about her blood test results. As a phlebotomist in the office of Dr. K, I worked with
patients going through weight-loss surgery. Most of my time was spent drawing and processing
lab work, but when this patient called, frantic and confused, Dr. K’s medical assistant
couldn’t answer her questions. Helping this woman was left to me.
Without hesitation, I imitated what I do as a “talker” and a peer tutor at Thomas Aquinas College
Every TAC class is a roundtable of about fifteen students and a professor, studying a common
text. The professor asks a single question. With intermittent support from him, the students must
collaborate to answer the question and to ensure that the entire class understands that answer.
To learn, we must speak. Without teamwork and rapport, the class learns nothing. Without a
clear understanding an opponent’s position, rebuttal is impossible. I became one of the “talkers,”
and took a leader’s role in the section, organizing the class’ answer to the opening question and
emphasizing positions that did not get enough attention.
By communication, I learn; by communication, I also teach. Many of my peers have difficulty
in math and science and gravitate to me as a tutor. I delight in helping them. During the
spring semester of 2009 I tutored two of my peers in stoichiometry and acid-base chemistry. I
discovered that one explanation doesn’t fit all, so I conformed my sessions to their differences.
When I tutor, I first assess the student: what are his particular mental talents and difficulties?
What does he already know? Working from this and from simple postulates, I straighten out the
material for him. The effect is invigorating for me as well as my peers: faces light up, smiles of
sudden understanding appear, and distress over grades evaporates.
I wanted to see Dr. K’s patient through her distress, too. I wanted her results to seem
clear, simple, and concrete. Together, we examined her labs at her pace. I gently explained
to her that, for the most part, she was within reference ranges. Then I brought her attention to
several numbers that were out of range. Some were not causes for alarm: she was borderline,
I explained, and only needed a slight increase in her intake of certain foods. Next, I drew her
attention to other, more genuine “low” values, and listed her options for supplements.
“But you said I have to add to my diet? I can’t eat very much!” she wailed. She was one year
post-gastric bypass. Calmly, I reassured her: “You don’t need to add. You can substitute the
foods on this list for foods you already eat.” I worked through what she needed to do, giving
her examples. At the end of our conversation she felt she had more control, simply because she
understood her next steps. That was the best day I had at work, because I did what I really enjoy.
In a small way, I’d designed a treatment plan and explained it to a patient. I liked tutoring, but
this was even better!
Patient contact, because it is a privilege, is exciting. But clarifying and compassionate
interaction, together with the patient service and sciences that I love, is what drives me toward
medicine. And, thanks to my unique undergraduate education, I can work this way on my feet, in
a group, on my own, and with different subjects—as different as patristic theology and the theory
of relativity. I think I am a good candidate for medicine—even better, I believe, for my TAC