Making A Difference, One Starfish (Or Patient) At A Time

by Lorien E. Menhennett

One of the things I look forward to in medical school is doing an international rotation. What that means is that during my third or fourth year, I would go to a foreign country to learn (and help) in hospitals or clinics there, working alongside that country’s physicians, nurses, and other medical practitioners. This is actually one of my requirements for a medical school – that it offers such an opportunity. When I become a physician, then, I also want to spend some time volunteering abroad.

I recently relayed these goals to a doctor I know. His response was as follows (I’m paraphrasing here): “Oh, that’s just a big Band-Aid. It helps the doctors feel better about themselves, but it doesn’t really do much for the patients.”

OK, I know that working in a third world country on a short-term medical mission trip doesn’t solve all of the region’s problems. But I do think that it can make a difference in some individuals’ lives. And isn’t that what medicine is about, at least in part? Being there, in a room with one patient, helping that person make changes for the better, whether it is prescribing a medication, figuring out a plan to help the person lose weight, or putting a plaster cast on a broken arm?

When I talked about the situation with my mom, who is a hospice nurse, she shared a story with me that really encapsulates that desire to help an individual:

A man was walking along a beach where thousands of starfish had been washed up by the tide. The starfish were slowly dying, drying out in the hot, tropical sun. Then the man saw a small boy on the beach. The boy was stooping down and picking up one starfish at a time and then throwing them back into the ocean. The man walked up to the boy and said, “What are you doing? There’s no way you can make a difference to these starfish.” The boy picked up another starfish, tossed it into the waves, and replied, “I made a difference to that one.”

I realize that I can’t save the world. But I do believe I can make a difference, one patient, one person, at a time. Going into medicine, I have to believe that.