What Olin Taught Me

By Carmelle Tsai '08

I am sitting here writing this a few months shy of my graduation from Baylor College of Medicine. I have officially already completed all graduation requirements. In fact, all that stands between me and a piece of paper stating "M.D." is a month long vacation.

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The joy of finishing med school

I am blessed. If you've followed my story about how I got from Olin to Baylor in the past few posts, you can probably see a recurring theme that goes something like this: Carmelle doesn't know what she is doing, she fumbles around a lot, but in the end, the outcome leaves her far more humbled and thankful than she ever could have imagined.

I look back now on my nearly-four crazy years of medical school and I am happy to report that I can say the exact same.

Some (okay, many) of my moments were mishaps.

I failed several exams during my first year and a half (I'm telling you, Olin-folks, memorizing is a hard skill to acquire!). My first time in the ER, I was sent to listen to examine a patient who clearly had a working heart. I swear I had my stethoscope in my ears correctly and yet no matter what I did, I heard no heart sounds. Now, instead of trying to slow down and make sure my stethoscope was intact, I was so flustered that I ran back to my attending and reported that I couldn't hear the guy's heart--which was promptly met with a look of utter terror and concern in my attending's face.

Some of my moments were dramatic. Or strange.

I've spent hours in a basement lab staring at various dissected body parts. They let me use a power drill on someone's knee and I helped insert a metal rod into someone's tibia. I've also helped saw off someone's foot. I can still smell the distinct iron-laden scent of a lot of blood as I remember standing terrified and shell-shocked in a trauma operating room as a man lay bleeding out on the table from multiple gunshot wounds. One of my patients in the psychiatry emergency center told me he was sent by aliens on a top secret mission and that he was also going to be the next president. 

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Me with the black case holding the human skull each anatomy tank group got to take home to study 

Some of my moments were plain heart breaking.

One of my favorite patients in the emergency room was a thirteen-year-old who had attempted to hang himself. I saw a woman die right in front of my eyes in the shock room. She had been taking a walk at night with her husband--she had been sideswiped by an oncoming car. He was not. I told a woman that she will likely never be able to have children again. I held an African HIV positive, malnourished child in my arms and rocked her as she cried, realizing that I felt like I was hugging a little skeleton. I have prayed and prayed and prayed over the puffy little body of child in the ICU whose body was slowly shutting down as a direct result of physical abuse.

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Reading with kids in Swaziland, Africa

Some of my moments were pure joy.

I delivered a baby! I played plants versus zombies and high-fived a patient on discharge day who initially came in unresponsive and nearly comatose. I have run around rural Africa with children on my back, dirt in my hair, and love in my heart. I saw kids who had been neglected to the point of malnutrition find good foster parents and become nursed back to health and happiness. There is a construction worker out there whose wrist now bears a scar from the wound I sutured up. My arms have held preemie babies and the elderly and everyone in between. I passed all my board exams (believe me--that truly is pure joy!).

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Swinging in Swaziland, Africa 

Though my experiences have run the gamut, time and time again, I have seen something incredible shine through. In medicine I have been thrust--often unprepared--into people's vulnerable, awkward, and painful places. More often than not I have grasped for the right words rather than been eloquent or smooth. But in those encounters where I most deeply understand what it means to be a healer, I have found that my heart has been in a place of genuinely wanting to not just be next to my patients in those painful places, but to be with them in those places. Maybe this is a stretch, but when these things happen, sometimes I find the immense gratitude wells up as I recognize how I've been practicing to become a physician all along.

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In Zambia, Africa 

I remember my first year of Olin when I stayed up multiple nights in a row with that blasted inverted pendulum. I was tired and hanging out with people I had just barely met. But we were in it together, and we were not just working next to each other, but working with each other. In my second year in UOCD, I remember all the nifty ways we tried to not just wonder about how photojournalists act and think, but we tried to be photojournalists to understand how they act and think. During SCOPE I remember numerous discussions and mock-ups and role playing that went into understanding how women in rural Guatemala cook and complete their daily tasks.

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Teaching one of my sweet girls how to listen to her own heart in Zambia, Africa

So perhaps bioengineering cells on scaffolds, brainstorming for photojournalists, or designing wood burning stoves isn't quite like being a doctor, but to do a good job I think I've found that the core concept is still the same. It is to enter into and be with the people you are trying to help, and it is to understand by experiencing rather than pondering at the periphery. For this understanding, I am only even more grateful and blessed to think back of all that Olin has given me. More than an engineering degree, more than a way of thinking, Olin has helped me develop a way of caring for others. And though maybe I care for patients rather than product consumers or business people or other engineers--aren't we all still people in the end in need of others to stand with us in love? I hope so.

Grace, peace, and blessings,

Carmelle

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Editor's Note:  Last week Carmelle found out some big news - that she will be a resident pediatrician at UT Southwestern/Children's Medical Center of Dallas!   If you're interested in reading more about Carmelle's med school adventures, check out her essay  that won her first place in the Gold Foundation contest.  The Gold Foundation is a humanism honor society which inducts certain medical students and residents each year for exemplifying humanism and promoting compassionate care.

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Gold Humanism Honor Society Induction Ceremony as fourth year medical students--these white coats are now well worn in!

In addition, any Olin students or alumnus interested in pursuing a medical path may want to read Carmelle's ramblings (as she calls it) about applying to medical school, taking the MCAT and navigating the AMCAS here

Return to Part I or Part II

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