Never allow yourself to be defined by fear, no matter how strong your vasovagal.
The first time I experienced vasovagal syncope, I was 17 and volunteering in a medical lab. A nurse asked me to help draw blood from an infant. I watched as the baby’s hand turned purple, her face turned red with fury, and suddenly her chubby little arm seemed immensely strong. In a flash, I was on the ground, looking up at the nurse who was fending off the father’s outrage at my incompetence to help his sick child.
In the intervening years, my problems with blood nearly drove me away from medicine altogether. I tried working at blood drives and donating to desensitize myself but always found I had to look away and lay down. I loved the science, psychology, and humanity of medicine, though, so I couldn’t walk away from it. Too numerous to count are the stunned faces and laughter of people who said, “So you’re saying you’re afraid of blood…and you want to be a DOCTOR?” I’d laugh too. “Don’t worry,” I’d reassure them, “I won’t be a surgeon.”
Then third-year rotations came around and my greatest fear was realized: surgery was my first rotation. I asked around about how to make sure a chair was available and how to tactfully communicate to my preceptor, “I have this reaction so don’t count on me too much. I really want to be here but I also can’t control this.” I watched videos of operations for as long as I could tolerate. It wasn’t very long.
On the first morning of my general surgery rotation, I felt woozy watching the sterile technique training videos. As soon as I finished this training, I was whisked into the middle of an operation. I scrubbed and gowned, mortified that my first interaction with my preceptor was going to be needing to excuse myself within seconds of meeting him over an open abdomen.
I walked up to the patient, was handed a retractor…and was instantly cured. Now, after two months of first incisions, of being sprayed by pumpers and bleeding bone marrow, of suctioning and dabbing blood in the surgical field, I did not once sense my vision starting to tunnel or feel the familiar sensation of cold sweat over every inch of my skin. I can’t explain how it happened, but perhaps the first moment I was with a human being at their most vulnerable—not just present but actually participating—was the moment in which I felt purpose enormous enough to expel the fears which had plagued me for a decade prior.
I’m still learning about myself and I don’t know which specialty I will end up in, but now I’m not counting anything out. If you’re in medical school, there is very little stronger than your determination. Don’t underestimate your ability to adapt. Don’t underestimate your curiosity and its power to elevate you above your fears and perceived shortcomings. Maybe you’re a surgeon, after all.
Jen Daniels is a third-year medical student at Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine. She is involved with the Diversity Committee and is in the Global Medicine Track. During her time at RVUCOM, she has also been a member of Medical Students for Choice and the Global Medical Outreach Club. She received the Legacy Achievement Award in 2019 for her “innovative leadership in creating engaging events to promote community development.”