As a medical student, I'm getting awfully used to uttering the phrase, "I don't know." I repeat it while studying, lament it when posed questions by professors and classmates, and hide behind it when asked for legitimate medical advice by friends and family.
At this point in my training, I'm just beginning to learn how to play doctor. Flubbing my way through the lines of the interview and pantomiming a crude physical exam when I see patients, I couldn't even pass as an understudy. Yet, by virtue of my white coat and stethoscope, sick individuals lying on stretchers occasionally confuse me for an actual physician.
It's still a little exciting, and always humbling, when that happens. A mini ego boost to be sure, but canceled out when patients actually expect me to know something. Like the woman who grabbed my hand, looked me in the eye, and fearfully asked, "Do you think my cancer will come back?"
My initial reaction was a flash of terror. I wanted to stammer that I'm doing my best to learn at least 75% of the material before each exam, and feel like I'm struggling to retain even a quarter of that information the week after. My charade had been exposed - I was soliciting details without any idea of what to do with the information, and possessed no ability to respond to questions asked of me in return.
So, I told the truth.
"I don't know," I confessed, still holding her hand, "but the doctors are going to do everything they can to make sure it doesn't."