I wrote this my first year out of medical school and at the time shared it on a site I was writing for. I’m re-sharing all these years later, because it’s still very applicable (both to me and others) – particularly since many of you are at the beginning of your med school or residency journey.
Occasionally I find myself in the OR standing over a patient (on a step stool, thanks to my losing battle with a vertical challenge), scalpel in hand, with a “holy-geez-someone-call-a-doctor” feeling. It’s that surreal feeling you get as you transition into a new role, just intensified I think now that my new role involves…I don’t know…cutting people open and pulling out their babies or looking at someone’s insides with a laparoscopic camera?
Honestly, each day is a weird transition of sorts. I get up every morning and do normal things – shower, nurse a couple of babies, lock the front door with a piece of toast hanging out of my mouth and a coffee cup balancing in the crook of my arm, and I transition. The transition is usually seamless – get to the hospital, round, deliver babies, scrub for surgeries, or see patients in clinic, lather, rinse repeat. But every once in while when there’s a moment to step back and survey a situation I will suddenly notice this flood of weird feelings, like I’m a kid playing dress-up and at any minute I’ll have to come back to the real world.
It happens the first time you do a full physical in medical school, or as you sit counseling a family during a tragic diagnosis or bad outcome, maybe when you hand off a tiny, slippery, screaming human to it’s exhausted mother – this overwhelming feeling of “I should NOT be allowed to do this” delicately balanced with “how did I actually become capable of doing this?”
Everyone in medicine feels it at some point and I don’t know that it’s easily explained to those outside the medical field. The only non-medical thing I can personally relate it to is the feeling of overwhelming responsibility paired with shear terror you get as you cradle your first born (or first bornS, if you’re in the multiples club with me) in a quiet house and realize the hospital failed to send you home with a nurse or monitor or instruction manual of any sort. You know, when your brain is wavering between “I got this.” and “Nope, totally don’t got this” but hasn’t quite established where “comfortable” is just yet. It’s this air of not belonging, almost of doing something you shouldn’t be doing, even though you’re doing exactly what you should be doing.
It’s weird. It is so weird.
I’ve heard it called Imposter Syndrome somewhere, I’m honestly not sure if that’s an actual title of something or if I pulled it out of thin air, but it seems appropriate. I assume the frequency of this feeling will continue to fade as we settle into these new roles, but I wonder if it ever completely disappears? After years of practicing medicine do you ever still get that feeling or does it become so routine that you lose sight of the uniqueness of it all? Either way, I can only assume that with a country full of interns braving their PGY-1 year that I’m not alone in the Imposter Syndrome struggle.
I’ve had a few distinct times I felt this – my first cadaver lab as a med student, probably my entire first year as a doctor, my first midnight and only-Ob-in-the-hospital delivery as a new attending, my first solo surgery. It’s important to note that these things never feel unsafe – it’s not so much a feeling of unqualified as it is a sense of finally realizing this dream you’ve had so long. I can only describe it as a sense that you are finally granted both permission and skill to do these amazing things.