Guest post by Sharon Pang, a second year medical student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

When I first heard the acronym “M&M” in medical school, my mind went immediately to the candy. Even when I learned that M&M stands for morbidity and mortality, I didn’t know what to expect at a conference discussing this topic. I thought it would be an extremely somber meeting that everyone wants to get out of. Morbidity and mortality conferences are traditional, recurring conferences held mainly by academic medical centers for physicians to analyze adverse patient outcomes through peer review.

After a busy first year of medical school spent primarily in classes, I found that it was often easy to forget the motivation behind my decision to pursue a career in medicine. While attending a conference in the fall, I was intrigued to see morbidity and mortality on the schedule and decided to go. As I sat in the M&M meeting, many specifics of the procedures discussed were completely unfamiliar to me as a second year medical student. There was one aspect, however, that consistently revealed itself to me as each doctor spoke.

They care. We care. And, we want to do better. The presented cases not only brought up the wondrous joys and bitter failures of medicine, but also what it means to be human — to want to improve and learn from our mistakes in order to help others.

One of the physicians spoke about the traumatic experience of trying to embolize a vessel in a patient, and the patient waking up paralyzed because some of the embolization material had traveled to the anterior spinal artery. He said the experience and guilt never fully leaves you, but the worst part is being expected to move on almost immediately. He mentioned that after the airplane crash on the Hudson River in 2009, the flight attendants were all given extended time off to recover from the trauma, and he compared it to how physicians are expected to move on from life and death situations almost immediately.

The weight of being a physician returned to me at that moment. Getting that answer correct on the exam doesn’t matter if you don’t get it correct in real life. What I’m studying for isn’t a grade, but to improve a fellow human’s health. I thought about the numerous times I complained to my parents and friends about the amount of time each day I spent studying, and I realized that it’s worth it. It’s so much more than worth it, because the knowledge I acquire and the experiences I will have in the hospital will prepare me to become a physician who my patients can indubitably rely on. This is a weighty, difficult, yet beautiful burden.

The most poignant thing I learned at the M&M meeting was how important it is to acknowledge our mistakes. Seeing multiple doctors admit to one another making decisions that cost lives was beyond humbling and a necessary reminder that, as a future physician, I not only need to succeed with persistence, but fail with grace and understanding. My first M&M conference reminded me of both why I am on this path and what sort of physician I hope to become.


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