As an incoming medical student, there are many acronyms and abbreviations that you are suddenly expected to know on top of the already impossible foreign language of pathologies and prescriptions. Perhaps most formidable is the SOAP note, where healthcare professionals document the findings, assessments, and plans for each patient encounter. Until a month ago, I had never heard of a SOAP note, but now, I am expected to write each piece of information and symptom in a mixture of medical jargon and Latin-based abbreviations.
As the director of our Doctoring course, Dr. Moffitt is careful to help each of her medical students “not look like an idiot.” A necessary part of that training is skilled SOAP note writing. She walked through the various components and then casually mentioned how relieved she was there were no English majors in the room because SOAP notes need to be concise, not flowery. Within seconds, I was outed by multiple peers as the only English major in our class of 80 students.
It was not the first time the dichotomy between English and medicine has been pointed out to me. The most common response when I explain that I am a medical student who majored in English is: “So when did you change your mind?” More often than not, the question is nuanced to sound more like, “So when did you decide for a real career?” My response has ranged from following my passions to trying to stand out, but the truth is, I was mostly being selfish.
As a lifelong lover of fiction and writing, majoring in English was an easy choice. The only drawback was my other lifelong dream of attending medical school. I decided to keep one foot in both doors and hope that medical schools would overlook my “flowery” major.
As I trekked back and forth from “Intro to Biology” to “Writing Literary Criticism” during my first semester, I started to weave together the commonalities between the two. With each course and each semester, I started to see an obvious value to my degree. English courses deepened my understanding of humanity while science courses provided a concrete understanding of the natural world. I learned, for instance, a list of symptoms for various mental illnesses and the physiological mechanisms of the drugs that treat them. But it was fictional characters who helped me grasp the specific, compulsive thought patterns one might face with acute mental illness. From cancer to dementia, I believe the balance of humanities and science provided me the perfect introduction for a career in medicine. Throughout my medical career, I hope to maintain this balanced curiosity to provide medical care that is both competent and empathetic.
However, an English major is certainly not the path for everyone. Plenty of English majors have little empathy, and plenty of STEM majors understand people better than I do. What is certain is that medicine flourishes with academic diversity. Within the Class of 2021, for instance, academic backgrounds range from art to music, business to ethics, cancer biology to synaptic plasticity. Each student brings their own perspective and insight.
It is the culmination of these skills and experiences that makes for the effective practice of medicine. While I once felt apologetic about my choice to major in English, I have quickly realized that all disciplines bring a strength and power to the practice of medicine. Just as my colleagues can fill in where I lack, I can do the same for them.
Recently, I have made it a habit to ask physicians what they studied as an undergraduate. There are certainly common answers like physiology or biology. But surprisingly, a large majority light up and begin telling me about their failed, short-lived career as an electrical engineer or their part-time obsession with Old English. There is no cookie-cutter mold in medicine, and we—as patients and doctors, collaborators and colleague—benefit from this diversity.