The Power of Words

Marissa Wheeler

It was a typical December evening when I drove home after a ten-hour day on my dermatology elective. The walk to my car was chilly, the roads were sloppy, and the traffic was of course sluggish. The day had consisted of continuous 15-minute appointment slots and multiple patient visits for atopic dermatitis, acne, and hair loss. I had been enjoying this dermatology elective, and a few times a week got the opportunity to meet a patient with a rare skin disorder, but overall, I had been spending any free moment counting down the days until winter break and making plans for what I was going to do with my newfound freedom.

Today, something felt different from my usual routine, but I couldn’t figure out why. I enjoyed looking at the glittering lights of the city and was grateful for the long walk back to my car because I was getting some desired exercise in. There were many things I needed to accomplish that evening, but for the first time in a long while, I wasn’t worried about it. I was actually smiling as I answered emails and cooked a delicious dinner for myself.

My roommate, also a medical student, came home a few hours later and per our typical routine, we asked about each other’s days. Usually this consisted of complaining about residents, attendings, mean patients, or just medical school in general. I let her tell me about the derogatory comments her resident had made during lunch, and then when it was my turn to talk, I just said, “My day was surprisingly really good.” She was a little stunned by this answer and asked what had happened that made it a great day. I thought about it for a moment because I really wasn’t sure myself. I quickly scanned my brain of the day’s events, but nothing amazing stuck out to me. There were no “zebra” patients, I didn’t get free lunch, and some of my patients had even been fairly challenging. I came to the conclusion that I had been in a good mood all day because of something that had happened early in the morning right when I arrived to clinic.

The previous day I had worked with a new attending. Her clinic schedule was very busy, just as they always are, and we had many complicated patients back to back. I did my best at history taking, presenting, forming plans, and writing thorough notes, and left at the end of the day worn out and ready for some much-needed rest. This morning when I sat down at my work station, my attending arose from her chair and walked down the long hallway to me. I was instantly worried I had done something wrong. Instead, she told me that she had read all of my notes from the previous day and wanted to thank me for the great job I did on them. She had noticed I had put in a lot of time and effort into them. She had a bubbly and loud personality, so a few other students and nurses had heard what she said. My first instinct was to be embarrassed, and I just stammered “thank you” as fast as I could.

Now, relaying this story to my roommate, I was proud of this compliment and told her how amazing it was to hear that my work was appreciated and that I felt like I was truly wanted as a part of her care team. This simple and quick exchange of words had stuck in my head the entire day and brightened my mood. Our conversation then turned to how rare it is that we receive compliments and feedback on our strengths from our superiors, besides when they are forced to do it as a part of our mid-rotation evaluations which feels very disingenuous. On a typical day, all we hear is constructive criticism or a back-handed comment such as “you are alright for a medical student”. We agreed that the best part about this episode was that she had taken time out of her day to find me and thank me, even though there was nothing requiring her to do so.

Over the next four weeks of the rotation, I only worked with this particular attending five more times. However, each day I worked with her I found myself waking up happy and eager to go into clinic. I wanted to do my best and found that I liked learning more those days than others. Each day I worked with her, the attending would compliment something I was doing well either immediately after I did it or at the end of the day. It varied from thanking me for talking to a complicated patient to telling me my presentations were improving. Each time, I felt giddy and couldn’t stop smiling. I have received many compliments throughout life, but I think medical school unfortunately has a way of making you feel like you are never doing enough: that perfection is just expected. I didn’t realize how much I was craving someone to thank me for working hard. I don’t want to give the impression that she exclusively gave me compliments because there were definitely times we discussed things I could improve upon, but even these conversations left me with a positive attitude.

Over my winter break, I couldn’t stop thinking about how this attending had turned an okay experience into a great one. I mustered the courage to email her and thanked her for making me feel like a real team member and encouraging my learning in an optimistic manner. This experience was not dramatic or life changing, but I think most medical students would agree that in the depths of studying, overnight shifts, and USMLE exams, a compliment from someone you look up to goes a very long way.


Becoming a Doctor at the University of Minnesota Copyright © 2021 by Marissa Wheeler. All Rights Reserved.