guest post by Natalie Honan
Starting medical school, I thought I was entering a field where there was always a right answer: one correct multiple choice option, one specific shape of cell to look for under the microscope, or one certain tried-and-true treatment for most ailments I’d encounter. With lectures focused on basic science, I memorized the protocol for every problem. In the beginning, I didn’t see much of a place for creativity in medical school.
One pandemic, a virtual school year, a handful of major world events, and the first half of my medical training behind me, I was about to start my first official rotation. I was so excited to finally be seeing patients on my own and to actually get to participate in their care. Eighteen years of school had prepared me to identify the one right answer that would solve all my patients’ problems. Imagine my surprise when I realized that this was not the case…
It turned out real life medicine is much messier than a single right answer. A real patient’s history is often much more complicated than the scenarios I studied my first two years of medical school. The hypothetical patients from my practice questions supplied me with buzzwords and clinical pearls, leading me to the solution. In reality, some coughs sound “barky”, but are not croup; and sometimes, the Lupus “butterfly rash” you swear you’ve seen in a photograph of a hundred times is just a sunburn; and not everyone is relieved by “reassurance.” And as wonderful as it was to be around people again, humans can be tricky.
This was made painfully clear when a life-saving vaccine was created in an incredible scientific effort, one that would effectively bring the world back to life. We finally had an answer, some protection against this virus that has already taken so much from communities across the globe.
At first, it was hard for me to imagine how someone could not be interested in the one right answer that we were so excited to offer them. But it wasn’t long before I started to see trends: fear, misinformation, entitlement, something “my neighbor said”, or “I saw on the news”, or “happened to my cousin’s friend.” Sometimes hesitation is justified, as our healthcare system has historically harmed people of color, particularly Black and Brown folks, as evidenced in worse outcomes of preventable disease and the pervasiveness of institutional racism in medicine.
The skills to discuss these difficult topics are not learned in a textbook and demand self-work to practice. I can’t help thinking back to conversations about the COVID vaccine with hesitant patients and wishing I’d said something else, but each misstep would help me organize my thoughts more constructively down the line. The way I approached this discussion would evolve the more I learned from patients, the more I observed experienced and compassionate physicians, and the more patience I had with myself. Eventually, it felt empowering to have the knowledge to set folks up to make good decisions about their health, and even more empowering to share that information with patients, who could share it with their loved ones and amongst their communities.
All this to say, these early experiences in my clinical rotations inspired my “vax-zine” titled, “Give the Shot a Shot”– a pocket sized guide to using science and empathy to address various forms of COVID vaccine hesitancy. A little reminder to myself that in medicine, there is usually more than one right answer. In its ideal form, the zine can be printed from a regular printer sized paper and folded into a booklet. But as this is 2021, I also made a copy that is more compatible with the world wide web, check it out!