Helping a fellow human being is likely the most common reason why students enter the medical profession. The immense satisfaction that we experience by helping another person motivates us to devote our lives to a profession that proclaims this as its raison d’être. However, as we enter the clinical years of medical education, it becomes evident that to achieve this in the context of medicine is indeed a challenge.
Why is it that we have the ideals, yet still fail to help others the way we hoped to?
On June 19th, 2000, the McGill Chapter of Phi Delta Epsilon medical fraternity had the honor of hosting Dr. Miguel N. Burnier Jr., Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology, McGill University, as the Aaron Brown Lecturer. Dr. Burnier gave a lecture titled “A Story”, through which he communicated an inspiring message, and answered this unasked question. “What makes a good physician is not the knowledge one possesses, but three things: ideals, passion, and courage.”
Ideals give direction to our lives. It is the ideal of wanting to help the sick that brought most of us to the doors of the medical profession. Through medicine we hoped to cure disease and thus alleviate suffering. However, the suffering of a patient is more than the symptoms of the disease, it is the consequences of the disease – physical, emotional, psychological, and social consequences. Only if we are able to recognize the distinction between disease and illness and address the full impact of both can we alleviate the suffering.
Passion empowers ideals. The practice of medicine in the 21st century is a foreboding challenge. Physicians are inundated with increased numbers of patients and concomitant decreased availability of support staff and health care funding. These factors not only compromise patient care directly but they also affect the physician’s interactions with patients. Physicians, when working in stressful situations, rarely have enough time to spend with their patients. They are unable to provide the holistic care that is needed to alleviate the suffering. Furthermore, these behaviors and stressors are passed down to the residents and the medical students. The passion that we have as young medical students starts to decline as we face the similar challenges of worsening working conditions. The small, yet frequent difficulties we encounter on the way to becoming the “good doctors” we set out to become, make us question the realism of such an entity. Passion empowers us to practice our ideals and the loss of passion allows us to compromise our ideals.
It is courage that will carry us through the difficult times that we may encounter as health care professionals. Courage is the capacity to suffer in the name of our ideals. When in situations that challenge our ideals and dampen our passion, it is courage that sustains us. Courage transforms the challenges we experience into opportunities to grow through suffering. As medical students develop courage, they give depth to their passion and ideals, and thus mature to become the role models they once followed. Thus, young medical professionals need to remember their ideals, sustain their passion, and harness their courage to achieve their goal.