Op-Ed: Step Outside of Your Medical Bubble

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The thought of a 30-minute walk home after my 26-hour shift at the VA hospital was overwhelming. So, I called for an Uber ride.

A middle-aged Black man dressed in a nice suit picked me up. “That color looks good on you,” he said, referring to the ceil blue scrubs that I’d worn every day for the past year as a clerkship medical student.

“Thanks,” I said. “I stopped caring about what I wear these days.”

Then, he started telling me how certain shades of blue, orange, and yellow would look good with my light-brown skin tone. I became intrigued — how did this stranger know what colors I would look good in?

He readily told me that he was a fashion designer and makeup artist, and drove for Uber on the side. Here I was getting free fashion advice from a professional. I wondered what my patients thought of my daily scrub attire. I asked him more questions — what type of earrings should I wear, what about makeup?

At a time when I thought the way I presented myself was spiraling downward, someone I just met already seemed invested in me and how I looked. Would I be able to request advice from a nutritionist, a sports trainer, or an artist during my next Uber ride? As I stepped out of his car, he handed me his business card, and I handed him a big tip.

A couple of months later, I was in another Uber ride that jazzed up my day. This time, I was the one to strike up a conversation. “This is good,” I said to the Uber driver as I heard rap playing on the radio.

“It sure is,” he said. He then told me how he was writing his own rap songs and performing in his community. Sharing his music meant a lot to him.

That night, I sat on my bed, pen and paper in hand, and wrote my first rap song. I tapped into emotions and beliefs that I had never expressed. I felt empowered. I haven’t written another song since, but if that experience had not happened, I never would have known that I was capable of writing a rap song. And If I hadn’t met the fashion designer, I would not have ventured to strike up a conversation with another Uber driver.

As a medical student, I am constantly learning from my team, but I am also experiencing memorable lessons outside the hospital. I grew up with the perception that I would be happy interacting with a certain type of person: Someone who had a similar personality to me. I realized that pushing myself to talk with people of different backgrounds — different ages, races, professions, and so on — and asking questions, has not only helped me expand my knowledge but also develop confidence in the diverse and universal abilities that we as humans possess. These moments remind me of the importance of staying engaged and asking questions.

As I become a primary care provider and develop relationships with my patients, I will continue to be open to the experiences and challenges that patients share with me. I may peek into the worlds that my patients have created for themselves and broaden my views. One question can lead to a new connection, and many more may follow. Who knows what insights my patients will provide me?

Mounika Kanneganti is a fourth-year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The opinions expressed in this article do not represent those of the University of Pennsylvania Health System or the Perelman School of Medicine.

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