Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Making a Difference


Doctors don't get snow days. Neither do students on rotations, but today is an exception and instead of driving through forty miles of cold, wind-blown confetti, I'm sitting here by the fire, comfortably watching it fall. Ordinarily, and that includes tomorrow, I'll take a winding country road that skirts Sabego Lake (photo) north to a small town in the foothills of the White Mountains, from which Mt. Washington, the highest point in New England, can be seen on a clear day. There, along with my preceptor, I'll work my hands around, under, and over sore muscles, tender points of lymphatic congestion, and arthritic joints, learning how to translate osteopathic manipulation from a classroom exercise into a meaningful therapeutic experience.

In a lot of ways, that linguistic process underlies everything we do in medicine as students, whether we still sign our names MS-I, II, III, or IV (medical student plus our current year) or append the long-dreamed-of counterpart, PG-I, II, III, IV (post-graduate or resident and the year) to a quickly and sleepily scrawled signature. Yes, even residents have classwork, homework, journal articles to read, and papers to present. It's not all hands-on.

But the translation is the best part, I think, or at least it is for me, right now. I like working with the structure and mechanics of language -- grammar, syntax, the nuances of word meanings, the distinctions between dialects. Learning the language of medicine is a student's first task and it takes two years to become vaguely familiar with the vocabulary. But it's like my first year high school Spanish class. We memorized dialogues and repeated them as though they meant something, but in the real world how many times can you ask, "Hola Juan, donde esta la biblioteca?" before people start avoiding you?

I'm not opposed to learning those dialogues -- next time I'm in Cancun I'll have no trouble finding the library, as long as the guy I'm talking to is named John. Anyone else and I'm in trouble. Language has to be applicable to be meaningful. And getting the hang of meaningfully applying what we've faithfully tried to memorize -- or better yet, learn and understand -- is ongoing. It's like the pursuit of virtue according to the fourth century Church father, Gregory of Nyssa. He said the process is eternal and we never arrive at a point where there isn't something else just ahead. Thinking you've got it made is proof you don't. Continuing to try is how we ultimately get to make a difference.


(Photo copyright 2011 by the author)
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