From Sweeney, with Love

By David Tassin, MS2 (Class of 2015)

It was 4 a.m., and this snoring seven-year-old in a top bunk needed an insulin shot. I had already spent hours testing campers, doling out juice and milk to droopy-eyed boys who fell asleep even as I held their shoulders to sit them up in bed.

And still I had dozens of campers left to check. Giving a shot so early on the 4 a.m. rounds did not bode well for the rest of the night.

After preparing his shot, I retrieved his sweaty arm from under his body, pulled up his shirt-sleeve, swabbed the back of his arm, and got the syringe out. And then he grunted and rolled over, taking his blankets with him to the other side of the bed. Valuable time wasted.

I soon saw that although he wore a shirt, he was completely naked from the waist down, and his butt was pointing straight at me, glaring like a toothless, bald Cheshire cat. So I shrugged, impatiently swabbed his left cheek, and stuck him.

In the Camp Sweeney clinic a few hours later, I switched on the disco ball—a small celebration after another successful night overseeing two cabins of diabetic kids—and sat languidly as the sun came up to brighten the North Texas countryside outside and drive away the insects that flocked to my headlamp throughout the night.

I thought back to training for this job. I recalled my excitement at the idea of dosing insulin, a real-life medicine with powerful effects, and my nervousness at having to give shots to children both asleep and awake.

After less than a month on the job, though, I rested comfortably with my head back. The excitement and nervousness vanished weeks ago. The magical appeal of medicine, at least in this narrow niche, was a distant, unfamiliar memory.

What then laid beneath the magic? What had I felt last night while I treated children and my supervisors—my safety nets—slept? Frustration, exasperation, and cynicism.

For a moment I panicked. Those attributes belong to a sleep-deprived, overworked, underpaid resident, not a 24-year-old, rising MS2 who is barely qualified to hold his stethoscope.

I thought harder and found more: efficiency, level-headedness, and confidence. I thought about my grandfather’s personal physician, a man with great confidence and thinly veiled cynicism. I thought about my uncle, a level-headed ER doc who sometimes feels exasperated and rides his motorcycle to blow off steam. I thought about a neurosurgeon I shadowed, a woman who pushed her whole team to work efficiently and became visibly frustrated when they didn’t. 

This summer I learned a lot of medicine. But I also saw a profound and necessary change in my colleagues and myself that will reoccur throughout our medical training.

After a few weeks of 15-hour days—of stuffy noses, twisted ankles, bug bites, poison ivy, vomit, gluteal clefts, and disco balls—the wide-eyed, youthful zeal that brought us to med school in the first place quietly vanished, revealing both good and bad characteristics of true clinicians.