Guest blogger: Jennifer Hope ’12
Externship* host: Dr. Tony Abner ’77—Read Abner’s account of this experience
I’m not one of those pre-meds with a revelation story. I don’t have a captivating tale about the exact moment when my prekindergarten self decided that I would one day become a doctor. I don’t have a touching anecdote about how the aging grandmother or the mentor and teacher who was diagnosed with cancer made me realize that the only option for me was a job where I could make sick people well. I haven’t been shadowing doctors since prepubescence, and I didn’t work in a top-notch biomedical lab throughout high school. To put it simply, I don’t fit the super intense MIT premed stereotype.
So as I entered Mount Auburn Hospital for the first day of my externship in the radiation oncology department, my too-long chemistry lab coat tucked under my arm, I wasn’t sure what to expect. This was my first real taste of what it would be like to be a practicing physician. Was it going to be too hectic? Could I really handle seeing sick patient after sick patient?
But as soon as Dr. Abner arrived, my fellow extern, Tiffany Chen ’12, and I were swept right into his daily routine, and I didn’t have time to worry anymore. He opened this filled-to-the-brim, brightly color-coded schedule and began explaining each case to us. For each person he gave the name, sex, age, type of cancer, occupation, and some unique, fascinating piece of trivia—this man translates books from Welsh as a hobby, this gentleman had polio as a child but played basketball throughout most of his adult life, this woman is a Belgian-born French chemist who came to work at Harvard and married a famous physical chemist.
I admired Dr. Abner’s interest is each patient as a person. In the examination room, he asked the same questions methodically—How do you feel? Any pain?—answered the patients’ concerns and explained treatment options with a regularity that comes from years of practice, and performed the same physical examinations each time—but he also asked if each was still employed, asked about hobbies and life, and didn’t ignore that this patient with this illness was so much more than just a body that needed to be fixed.
Dr. Abner’s lessons weren’t limited to the exam room. He explained to us some of the financial and political aspects of being part of a hospital (“This is the stuff they don’t tell you in school”). He talked to us openly about malpractice lawsuits, insurance hassles, and how specialized private clinics can hurt larger hospitals. He taught us about the imperfections and consequences of clinical trials, and why some journal articles had to be taken with a grain of salt.
The externship was an amazing experience for me. I had the opportunity to be immersed completely in the life of a physician for weeks, from routine appointments to treatment planning to meetings. I saw just how much collaboration goes into the practice of medicine. I went from looking at a CT scan and not understanding where one blotchy grey mass ended and the next began to being able to identify organs and see where the anomaly was. I saw my first surgery—a heart valve replacement—and felt a sense of awe both at what an amazing machine the body is and for the surgeon who can heal with the knife.
In short, the externship gave me a sip of what a career in medicine can be like, and I’m thirsty for more.
*Editor’s note: This is part of a series of posts from MIT students and alumni who were involved in the 2012 Student/Alumni Externship Program, which connected current students to alumni in workplaces worldwide during MIT’s Independent Activities Period. Alumni, learn how to get involved. This is just one way for alumni to interact with MIT students. Learn about other opportunities.