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The Catalyst

Medical student reflects on degree, subject of loss

By Chelsea Baldwin, M.D.
College of Medicine

Chelsey Baldwin takes a moment before graduation for a photo in front of a Magnolia tree planted in memory of her sister, Lauren Baccari, a former MUSC medical student. photo by Sarah Pack, Public Relations

This week, I graduate from the Medical University of South Carolina. Our mentoring physicians reminded us in the last weeks of the year, “They are going to call you doctor.”

We nod, understanding the weight of the responsibilities that now fall upon our shoulders. The same mantra is pounded into our heads as we practice running codes. “Should I assess the rhythm now or wait until the end of compressions?” I ask my preceptor. The answer? “You’re the doctor, you decide.”

As the end of any important experience, I’ve been told it is wise to reflect upon it to understand the impact and contemplate changes for the future. Such a process inevitably makes us better people rather than being leaves simply blowing in the wind on to the next event without appreciation of the last. However, I have always found the more extensive the time and the more diverse the associated feelings, the more difficult this task becomes. The reflection of my time over the past four years in medical school reveals this to be a daunting task.

Yet I am all the more motivated to do so, for the experiences have been profound and without a doubt, life altering.

About two months prior to graduation, I reported to the first floor of the basic science building to have my photograph taken for our class composite. When I arrived, the photographer reminded me that it seemed “like only yesterday” that I had been in the very same office several weeks prior to starting my first year to have a picture taken for The Catalyst, MUSC’s campus newspaper. I agreed. Yes, in some respects, time has flown.

As I recall those first weeks, I remember vividly the nervousness and anticipation of meeting my classmates and the uncertainty of how I would perform academically. Those feelings I eagerly put behind me as my confidence grew. Yet, once more, I have begun the cycle of uncertainty as I approach my first days as an intern. Thankfully, however, I feel confident that I’ll once again come full circle and will leave UVA a competent physician. Ironically, I am nervous to be out on my own, a feeling shared by many of my classmates. Our fear is rooted in the desire to avoid wrongdoing to our patients and for that reason, I will own the fear.

The basic science years, both year one and two, deserved a graduation of their own. It was an incredibly challenging time. I loathed our confinement to desks and lamps and angrily grumbled about the gloves I had to wear inside the library during the winter months as I plundered through mountains of lecture notes. Those were the days, however, when I made the most valued of friends. I depended on their interjections of anecdotes and creative complaints to break up the impending sense of doom as we fought to not fall behind in the face of an approaching exam.

While we worked ourselves to the bone during test weeks, forgetting showers and the appropriateness of non-stretch pants, we came to the epic rally of exam week that led unfailingly to the post-test celebratory parties. While some lived for the weekend, we did so for the “golden weekends” that followed exams. To this day, I retell with great enthusiasm the stories of the debacles surrounding the release of nearly 200, 20-some-year-olds who were finally liberated from the confines of their books for a weekend of freedom and indulgence.    
The clinical years were filled with mixed emotions. Applying what I had learned in the first two years of instruction to the clinical setting came with such a greater level of satisfaction. After all, that was why I applied to medical school: I loved, and continue to love, patient interaction and the challenge of diagnosis and treatment.

An experience that I am often questioned about with regard to my clinical years, is the experience of patient death and what effect it has had on me. I must admit it has been an evolving theme of my career and my life, and I still struggle to fully understand it myself, let alone explain it to others.

Chelsey Baldwin and her sister Lauren Baccari celebrate a special moment.

I had the unfortunate experience of losing my sister, Lauren Baccari, during my third year of medical school. Devastation is the only word I can use to describe my plight at that time.  The unforeseen nature of her death a mere few months before her own graduation from medical school made it nearly impossible for me to find solace. Consequently, as a clinician who must help families deal with pain and loss, I use my own experience and turn to the words and actions I took comfort in that were unique to my own journey, and I hold that in my repertoire of skills.

While I have become hungry for my diploma and feel deserving of the title I worked so hard to earn, there is the fear of shedding the stage of innocence that is afforded a medical student. For so long I have stood by and analyzed the successes and faults of my senior colleagues and now must prepare myself for withstanding the same criticisms.

In terms of my own reflection on medical school, I am always amazed at how the words of Charles Dickens describe my experience better than I can: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”


May 19, 2014



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