The Shadowing Blues

July 12, 2017
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My hands were sweating as my aunt and I waited in the receptionist room for Doctor Vivek to arrive. He had told us to come to his clinic at half-past ten. Nearly an hour later, he still hadn't arrived. Jagged bolts of lightning illuminated the grey sky. June wasn't the best time to visit India. You were guaranteed to be stuck indoors due to the long lasting storms. A few minutes later, a tall man with a black umbrella hurriedly strode into the reception room. He walked with his head down and his shoulders hunched forward. It took me a while to realise that he was Doctor Vivek.

My aunt and I followed him into the clinic. It was a squarish room and quite bland to look at despite one wall having fish painted on it. There was a table in the centre and three wheely chairs. Doctor Vivek directed us to sit. I was extremely nervous. This was my first time shadowing a doctor and I wasn't exactly sure what I was meant to do. Would I be able to talk to the patients? Was I expected to help the nurse? Doctor Vivek, to me, looked somewhat like a grizzly bear. He was tall and quite rounded. His hair was slightly gelled so that it stood up at the front and he wore rimless glasses. Yet there was a certain gentleness about him. He had a pleasant and friendly face. One couldn't help but like him.

My aunt had warned me beforehand that he was a very shy and timid man who didn't make a lot of small talk. In that way, we were very similar. I prefer listening over talking. I remember thinking, It's going to awkward if none of us speak.

After we were formally introduced, my aunt left me to my own devices. I was hoping she would offer to stay in the room and not leave me alone with a man who I barely knew. The first few moments were horrifyingly awkward. There were no patients to attend to so it was just the two of us enveloped in silence. Occasionally, our eyes would meet and we'd smile at each other but that was about it. I realised that if I wanted to get anywhere with this “shadowing” experience, I had better start talking.

So, I asked him the age old question all university interviewees ask aspiring doctors, “Why did you become a doctor?” Of course, I was interested in learning about his inspiration, but I will admit that a part of me was hoping that his response would help me come up with a better answer for when I was asked that question. This plan totally backfired.

“I wanted to be a chef,” he said nonchalantly.

“Really?” I asked although I was really thinking something along the lines of, What-why-how???

“My parents wanted me to become a doctor. I had the good grades so here I am.” As soon as Doctor Vivek uttered those words, the dark bags under his eyes became more prominent. His smile was no longer completely innocent but had a hint of tiredness to it. We relapsed into an awkward silence once more. I avoided looking at him, directing my gaze at everything but the bear in the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see he was searching my countenance for something—perhaps a twitch in my face or some sort of sign which would betray my thoughts.

I was judging him. I couldn't help it! Why would one practise medicine without some sort of motivation? Why would anyone go through at least a decade of grueling medical school just to end up having a career which wasn't driven by passion? I was perplexed.

A knock at the door shoved us out of the horrid silence which had fallen. The nurse opened the door and took up the stance of a herald. “May I let the next patient in?” She asked, to which Doctor Vivek nodded.

His demeanor changed completely when a woman tentatively walked into the clinic with a little boy in tow. He patiently listened as she described how her son had a fever and cold. He watched as the boy’s body was wracked with cough after cough. After she talked for a while, he directed the nurse to let the boy lie down on the bed at the corner of the clinic. He methodically used a stethoscope and an otoscope to perform the regular check up. He observed the boy’s throat, shining a light in his mouth.

Doctor Vivek conversed with the young patient. “What did you have for breakfast? Which school do you go to?” The fear drained away from the patient’s expression. He was much more at ease and answered the questions with gusto. After this checkup, Doctor Vivek described the sickness that had befallen the boy. He prescribed some medicines, explaining the effects of each and every one. He spent about twenty minutes on one patient, ensuring that his mother understood everything about the illness.

It was the same with other patient. A couple came in with their first-born daughter, who was only a few months old, for a checkup. While my attention dwelt on how adorably small the baby's face and hands were, Doctor Vivek examined the baby from head to toe. He gestured to the father to take the baby into his arms and then started talking. “What do you use to wash your baby's hair?” He asked.

“Soap,” replied the mother, and her husband nodded vigorously in agreement.

Doctor Vivek gave them an exasperated smile. “What do you use for you hair?”

“Shampoo,” the mother answered and, once more, her husband nodded his head frantically. Then, the couple seemed to realise where the doctor was going with his questions. They smiled sheepishly.

“So it's okay to wash you hair with shampoo and your baby's hair with soap?” asked Doctor Vivek. The couple shook their heads while Doctor Vivek proceeded to explain the impacts of using soap to wash hair.

It was hard to believe that he didn't enjoy his job. He genuinely cared about his patients. He wasn't standoffish and didn't try to go through his patients as quickly as possible. He answered their questions calmly.

A couple of days into the experience, he told me, “It doesn't matter how many degrees you have from medical school. What is important is that you bring yourself to your patients’ level of understanding and explain what is happening to them.”

That's when I realised that maybe it wasn't that he didn't enjoy his job. He had grown to love his practise the way youths in an arranged marriage grow to love each other. There are people who are “married to their work” by choice. He had been married to his work by pressure. It was obvious that he had adapted to this pressure well. He greeted all his patients with fervour and a gentle, yet firm tone. He would drop helpful hints while we were waiting for patients to arrive.

Prior to this experience, I had always felt that my decision to become a doctor was quite impetuous. I do want to help people and save lives but at the back of my mind, there was still doubt working itself through my mind like a bug. What if I didn't like medical school? What if a doctor’s career wasn't the right path for me? However, from shadowing Doctor Vivek, I felt much more comfortable with my decision, not just because I really enjoyed his practise and could see myself as a doctor, but because I realised that adaptation is possible.

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