Becoming a doctor is HUGE for a boy growing up in a Russian family – far more impressive than even being President of the United States! Since there are no doctors in my family, nothing more pleasantly surprised my grandparents than when I began medical school over two years ago. They were so happy about my career choice that they decided to tell what seemed like every Russian living in North America that their grandson was going to become a doctor. Pretty soon, I had parents coming up to me trying to introduce me to their daughters as “Robert the Doctor”! As if this wasn’t enough, when I completed the cardiology block in medical school, I became flooded with calls from relatives asking what they should do if they have mild chest discomfort.
Ever since high school, as a way of further pursuing my interests in medicine outside of class, I took it upon myself to take care of my grandparents whenever they got sick or had any medical problems. They joked that just my mentioning that I was going to become a doctor could cure them! While this provided me with many interesting experiences, I can’t think of any that were more fun than administering Band-Aids to my grandpa.
Every time my grandpa goes to the dermatologist and gets a recurring, benign cancerous growth on his skin removed (a common occurrence), he counts on me to remove his old Band-Aid, clean his wound, and apply a new one.
Although it is a seemingly meaningless task, the process of applying the bandages has become a ritual. Most of the time, grandpa and I pretend I am a world-renowned surgeon and he is my patient.
Before entering the operating room, aka my grandpa’s bedroom, I meticulously wash my hands to remove any trace of harmful bacteria. As I enter the operating room, my patient is already sedated and awaiting surgery (grandpa is laying on his bed with his shirt off). At this point, I examine my surgical equipment (the Band-Aid and Neosporin in my hands) and begin surgery.
I carefully make the first incision (I remove the old Band-Aid), but all of a sudden I see that the patient has become pulseless and not breathing, indicating sudden cardiac arrest. Although the scenarios are always different, it never ceases to put a smile on grandpa’s face when I yell, “CLEAR!” and pretend to administer a shock on his bare chest.
Honestly, I’m not sure why I enjoy helping grandpa change his bandages so much. It’s a hard feeling to describe because it’s more than just about peeling a Band-Aid wrapper and patching the sticky end to his skin. I discovered that no matter how hard or stressful my day (believe me, med school can be stressful!), I can take a step back and reflect on these moments with my grandfather. Whether it be reenacting a surgery or listening to stories of my grandfather growing up in the USSR, these moments with family have played a crucial role as I transition from student to healer. They helped me realize the importance of cultivating relationships family members or friends, because having others to turn to when times get tough can make all the difference. Moreover, in our quest as medical students to memorize the myriad of symptoms and diseases, it is very easy to forget one simple truth as articulated by William Osler, “the good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.” We must always remember that each patient is someone else’s son, daughter, grandmother, or grandfather. They are not diseases with faces, but are real human beings, and it is our foremost duty as healers to work side by side as a team with our patients to ensure they receive the kind of care that we would want our own family members to receive.
Ultimately, these rituals always end in the same way. I screw the cap of the Neosporin back on, gather all of the wrappers and garbage, kiss my grandfather good night, and walk out of his bedroom door thinking how lucky I am. Some people only get a few impactful moments in their lives; I get one every time my grandpa goes to the dermatologist!
About Robert G. Dorfman
Robert G. Dorfman is a 3rd year medical student currently taking a gap year as a Research Fellow in the Department of Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery at Northwestern. Robert holds dual degrees in History and Medicine and was educated at the University of Oxford, as well as Northwestern, where he was admitted to medical school at the age of 18 through the Honors Program in Medical Education (HPME). Robert has published papers in the history of medicine and has presented research internationally. He enjoys making sense of modern medicine from a historical context, and likes to share his findings with others. You can contact Robert on Instagram @roberts_anatomy.