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Vol. 19 No. 1 (2021)

Not Knowing What to Do: A Narrative Reflection on a Medical Student’s First Patient Encounter

January 18, 2021


Medicine, though fundamentally a scientific discipline, is the art of transferring experimentally derived knowledge onto the care of patients. The clinician’s role is to master precisely that process. Therefore, in addition to acquiring a strong command of the biomedical sciences, integral to the clinician’s professional duty is the development of his or her identity as a healer.


This first-person narrative essay explores a clinical encounter between myself, a first-year medical student with very limited clinical experience, and an elderly man whom I found collapsed on the sidewalk. Fumbling in my clinical decision-making, I settle on simply holding the man’s hand to reassure him that his ambulance is on its way. Later, after reflecting on the event and obsessing over my blunders and hesitations, I finally recognize that the simple act of holding his hand was essential to my role as a future physician and healer, rather than implying clinical inadequacy.


  1. Lown B. The Lost Art of Healing. New York: Ballantine Books; 1999.


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