I recently found myself in the midst of my first rotation of medical school, outpatient internal medicine. Excited, and honestly a little terrified, would have described my state of mind as my preceptor asked me to see my first patient by myself. As I stood in front of the patient room and prepared to knock, I told myself, “This is it, it’s really happening! All of my hard work over the years was to get to this moment.” Yet, I had a sense that I had done this before. I know now that what had really prepared me most for that moment had not taken place in medical school or even college, but back in my hometown, in Maine.
In my family, there was always an expectation that you had to work. This meant that while my fellow classmates spent their summers during college working in high powered research labs or traveling the globe on service projects, I spent my five summers working as a server at a restaurant on the coast of Maine and taking classes at the local branch of our state university. But, I absolutely loved my job! I grew up in a small coastal Maine town, which attracts tourists every year in search of the perfect lobster roll and an afternoon sail on the bay. Therefore, as a server at a local resort restaurant, I got to meet people from all corners of the globe. I believe that it is these summers working as a waitress that best laid the foundation for developing skills which I use every day in the practice of medicine.
During my first summer, I worked as the hostess at the front of the restaurant. Not just anyone could be a server. I had to pay my dues first, before graduating to waitressing. As a waitress, I was expected to walk up to a table of complete strangers, greet them enthusiastically, make them feel at home and try to make a connection. Throughout the meal, I listened to their requests and strived to make the patrons feel comfortable and well taken care of. I often made meaningful connections with patrons and families who vacationed in Maine every summer and I found that they continued to request me as their server when they returned each year. Does this sound familiar? Is this not what we strive to do when we walk into a patient room: communicate, make a connection, try to meet needs and hopefully build long term relationships?
I always faced unique challenges at my summer job. I had to serve families on vacation who were often stressed, frustrated, and tired. I am sure we can all relate. I know that my family vacations are usually far from the carefree vision I always hope for. Further, behind the scenes, in the kitchen, there was competition and jealousy among servers, year round employees interested in defending their workplace territory from summer squatters, and the usual quirky personalities in any business. As a result, I learned how to advocate for myself and directly address workplace conflict in a professional manner. By striving to face these challenges, I learned to work as part of a team, multitask to the maximum, and make lasting friendships. I’m sure all servers can relate to the challenge of being triple sat at 7 pm when you already have a 6 top–talk about being in the weeds!
After five summers of working and the completion of college, I decided that I wanted to apply to medical school and I made sure that my extensive work history was highlighted in my application. However, to my surprise and great disappointment, not one of my medical school interviewers asked me about my work. I always had to bring up the topic. After every interview, I found myself asking, why did the interviewers not consider this an important experience worthy of discussion? I, on the other hand, saw this work experience as a critical component of my preparation for medical school.
Now, looking back as a third year medical student, I am truly able to appreciate how my work in the restaurant business helped to prepare me for the practice of medicine. I want to challenge admission teams at medical schools to rethink what they consider to be attractive applicants and important life experiences. As the healthcare community strives to improve the delivery of healthcare, I believe it is critical that we are selecting people who have not just checked off boxes on a long list of educational experiences, but those who have learned to engage with people in a meaningful way. I believe you do not have to travel to a remote village in Africa or to a lab at the National Institutes of Health in order to do this. Do I daresay that you can gain these skills a little closer to home? I feel that one can measure the character of an individual by looking to see how they have been involved in and have impacted their own community.