Watching From the Shadows: My Path to Becoming a Doctor

AM Rounds Slider Master-21By: Hillary Lin, MD candidate, Stanford School of Medicine. While a freshman at Stanford, she co-founded the Stanford Immersion in Medicine Series (SIMS), a program that facilitates physician shadowing for undergraduates.

I was biking through the darkness at 5 AM, an hour previously unknown to me except when pulling an all-nighter to meet an essay deadline. As a freshman in college, I had no concept of what “pre-rounding” meant and certainly no concept of “pre-pre-rounding.” I watched intensely through a haze of, essentially, jet lag that first day, being awed by the tall surgeons performing what looked like complex maneuvers on “hernias” and “fistulas,” and being grateful for seats offered to me by the staff.

At the time, I was far from sure I wanted to be a doctor. I had many relatives who were physicians, but most were doctors in my birth country, Taiwan, and none had ever shown me any part of their medical practice. Wanting to discover more about this profession, I helped start and coordinate the Stanford Immersion in Medicine Series (SIMS) program, described in the Innovation Report entitled “Is a Career in Medicine the Right Choice? The Impact of a Physician Shadowing Program on Undergraduate Premedical Students.” But despite developing organizational and leadership skills (and an understanding of exactly what kind of outfit was allowed in the operating room and clinic), I learned little about what being a physician meant before I stepped into the “shadow” of a doctor.

I quickly mastered the art of standing with my unscrubbed hands behind my back as I peered at unconscious bodies being cut and sewn. I saw evidence of early fetal life in women as young as 16. These were eye-opening experiences for me, but I gained even more from the conversations and environments of my shadowing sessions. The surgeon I followed chatted about his daughter’s college applications while teaching a resident how to close, demonstrating the easy atmosphere of a routine operation. The ob-gyn I shadowed described to me what she was seeing via ultrasound but also taught me about the challenges of being a woman leader in academic medicine.

Shadowing through SIMS brought to life the stories I had heard from my family about what it was like to treat and be there for their patients. I went from shadowing to volunteering at a free clinic, which settled my decision to become a doctor. My original vague understanding of medicine grew into a real love of getting to know and work with patients at their most vulnerable moments.

Beyond solidifying my path to becoming a physician, I gained valuable and lasting mentors through my shadowing. One of my first shadowing mentors invited me for dinner routinely, always excited to hear what I was up to in my personal and professional life. She came to my graduating violin recital during my senior year and invites me annually to be a mentor to her undergraduate mentees even now that I am a medical student.

Although our personal statements for medical school applications make it sound as if one experience, even one moment in time, convinced each of us to become doctors, it was truly a myriad of influences that convinced me. Hearing that being a doctor was a gratifying profession from relatives and mentors brought me to 10%. Shadowing brought me to 50%. The remaining path to being 100% sure I wanted to be a physician was due to my direct interactions with patients, guided along the way by physician mentors I had met through shadowing. I owe much of where I am today to these mentors, and I am grateful that I have found and obtained this path to the rewarding career of being a doctor.

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