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The Story No One Wants to Tell

NewannaAnna Burkhead -- I have been chained to a desk studying for Step 1 for a few days now, and every time I take a break it feels like the only thing I can do is sit and stare, because if I do anything involving brain function I will somehow purge everything I’ve studied. So this entry does not detail my plans to cure cancer, erase racism, or feed the hungry; it’s just about a past experience of mine.

I think that many medical students and health professionals may identify with this story, yet are afraid to tell their own version of it. From what I hear, it’s a common occurrence, but some people think this “event” signifies that a person is not suited for medicine. Well, I don’t believe that, and I’ve gotten over my embarrassment, so here it is….

The Time I Fainted in the Hospital

It was September 9th, 2002. (OK, actually I don’t remember the exact date, but it makes the story more dramatic if I pinpoint the time.) I was in college and had signed up for a shadowing program at the hospital on the Labor and Delivery ward. On my first day, I got to hold the newborns in the nursery, and I was hooked!

The next week, I showed up and one of the nurses asked if I wanted to watch an epidural. Being an eager Pre-Med, of course I said yes. I went into the delivery suite with the nurse to wait for the physician to administer the epidural. The laboring patient was Spanish-speaking and obviously in a lot of pain. I felt sorry and wanted to comfort her, but I don’t speak Spanish, and she didn’t exactly look like she wanted me to hold her hand, so I just stood next to the wall. When the doctor came in, he immediately went to work with his cart and tray, which held THE BIGGEST NEEDLE I’D EVER SEEN. But again, eager Pre-Med here, so I wanted to get as close as possible.

I think it was the combination of the huge needle, feeling helpless and unable to comfort the patient, and not having eaten in a few hours… I started to feel dizzy. Then I felt like I was looking through a telescope; my visual field was a small circle with black all around it. When I realized these signs were the prodrome of a syncopal episode (or, if you live in the Southern US, a DFO, for “Done Fell Out”, as in “Doc, I done fell out!”), I backed up against the wall.

Before I knew it, I was on the floor with a cut on my forehead where I hit a cart (thank goodness not the physician’s anesthesia cart!). I was immediately alert and incredibly embarrassed. I apologized to the patient, the doctor, and the nurse, and I sat out the rest of my shift at the nurses’ station.

For a while I thought that the fact that I had fainted while watching a medical procedure meant that I wouldn’t be able to handle medical school and being a doctor. But as more people reluctantly shared their stores of passing out and/or vomiting in the hospital, I decided it was more like a rite of passage for pre-med and medical students.

So, if anyone else out there (pre-med, medical student, seasoned pro) has experienced a syncopal episode, a DFO, or any involuntary loss of body fluids in a medical setting, feel free to share your story! My incident was embarrassing but in retrospect a bit humorous, and I bet there are some wilder tales out there. I know I’m not the only one!

May 21, 2007 in Anna Burkhead | Permalink


I feel your pain and embarrassment! During Nursing school I took my turn to shadow one of the ICU Nurses and one of the local hospitals. We had to get gowned, gloved, and masked to enter this patient's room and while we in there, the same thing happened to me! I didn't quite fall over, but I knew it was coming, and there's nothing you can do! So I, DFO'd as you call it. The nurses on the unit made me lie in one of the ICU beds and hooked me up to the monitors and monitored me until they could get my instructor and then I had to be monitored until my mom could come and get me to take me home! It's not only a rite of passage for the med-students, but also for your nurses as well!

P.S. now I'm a L& D nurse, and when I deliver a patient I always tell them that it's a rule that I get to hold their baby since I helped bring them into this world. It's fun,and they laugh especially if you bond with your patients, and I get my baby fix :) I highly recommend it

Posted by: colby | May 21, 2007 8:17:24 AM

thank you! I'm still a little squeamish and people tease me saying they don't know why I want to be a doctor. It's good to know that other people have had these moments in their medical education.

Posted by: Alyssa | May 21, 2007 7:16:15 PM

I definitely think it's a rite of passage, and nothing to be embarrassed about... at least not once a little time has passed! I have a bad habit of not eating when I get busy, so I was in clinic this past semester just shadowing an outpatient encounter and I saw the black tunnel, then I got this funny buzz/hum in my ears, I knew I was about to "DFO" (that's funny) so I excused myself and sat in a chair in the neighboring room wiht my head between my knees! Moral of the story - I'll be carrying lots of granola bars in my white coat on wards this summer! Good luck studying for Step 1!!

Posted by: Amanda | May 22, 2007 1:19:32 PM

Oh God yes. First day in anatomy lab. First scrub in. The surgical suiting up always gets me a little. It's conditioned now. Even though I actually like surgery. Don't feel bad.

Posted by: Sara | May 23, 2007 8:00:24 AM

I also had a near-DFO (love it!)with an epidural during clinicals for nursing school. In my defense, the nurse anethesthetist was doing a fantastic job vividly describing each of the layers of tissue as she was going through them so I could really visualize (and almost feel) it with the patient. The dark started creeping in and I became diaphoretic, so I stepped outside the door (just in time) to regain composure. The thing is, nothing else has really phased me, but the internalizing did it.

Posted by: David | May 29, 2007 1:39:23 PM

Hey, I know how you feel. I'm in pharmacy school, and last year, during my second year, I was in charge of diabetes screening at a health fair on a Friday afternoon... only that Friday ended a single week of having 4 big tests in medicinal chem, pharmacology, disease therapeutic management, and chemotherapy. Needless to say, my cognitive funtionability was very limited. I remember feeling like I was about to fall over from mental exhaustion and lack of sleep. I had a patient in front of me for the blood sample. In my compromised state, I picked up a lancet device that was set for sampling blood on the forearm or hip, not the finger. The needle was set to stick too deep, and on top of that, the lady flinched about the time I set it on the side of her finger. The lancet needle went under her fingernail about an 8th of an inch. It gets worse... I knew from the beginning I needed to be more careful, because I had gathered from her that she was on warfarin at the time. Yep, blood not only came out, but it shot in two nice straight streams right onto my white coat, making me look more like a butcher than a pharmacist! I was able to stop her bleeding, but she fainted in the process.

Anyway, I guess that's just a good reason why one should not head up health expos after studying evening, day and night solid for two and a half weeks. God bless all of those in medical, pharmacy, nursing, and other health professions school!

Posted by: Alex | May 29, 2007 1:41:54 PM

Can't say that I DFO'd while on clinics, but I think due to "prolonged involuntary fasting" I had a few near-misses. I did, however, pass out in college while watching some fraternity guys brand (yes, like a cow) their newly initiated members. I started leaning into some girl standing next to me, and my sorority sisters had to cart me out before I fell into the guys with the hot irons. They've not let me live that one down, and every time I smell burning flesh, I get a little nauseous. Hence, not doing surgery!

Posted by: =) | May 29, 2007 1:42:57 PM

I started out in medicine as an army medic. I had a near DFO (hehehe) observing my first toenail resection...Army medicine is a bit different, so when ol' Cap'n Cooper saw my reaction, he made it a point that I would sit in and learn how to do the procedure myself, start to finish. Now that I'm in nursing school, I really appreciate his need to toughen up his soldiers. I'm sure developing intestinal fortitude (or 'guts') at such an early juncture will be invaluable in the years ahead of me.

Posted by: Jennifer | May 29, 2007 2:25:24 PM

I started feeling woozy with snowflakes dancing before my eyes watching a resident try to get arterial blood- I know how much it hurts and that docs aren't always that good at it! Almost started again the next time. so I know I'll have to be careful ...

Posted by: Leah | May 29, 2007 7:21:45 PM

Don't feel bad. I was taking some 3rd year med students thru the GI lab and one of them almost "DFO" during a liver biopsy. Then 2 years later he's in surgery internship. Just remember to stand right (don't lock your knees) and shift around from leg to leg to keep the blood from pooling and also don't forget to take deep breaths. Sometimes new things are so exciting we forget to breathe.

Posted by: drvictoria | May 29, 2007 9:03:13 PM

You are not alone! I recently graduated with my MS in Exercise Physiology, but my story is an undergrad experience. The first week of internship and I'm standing in a patient's room with my mentor, stethoscope around my neck, listening to her educate the patient about restrictions he would have when he got home. My whole face starts tingling and I excuse myself to go sit until she is finished. I don't remember making it out of the patient's doorway! I made it only a few steps out of the patient's room before falling flat on my face. I didn't wake up until after they had rolled me onto my back and were beginning C-spine precautions. Two CAT scans, several bruises, and 5 hours later I was discharged from the ER with a mild concussion and no real reason for why I DFO'd.

Posted by: Caity | May 30, 2007 4:10:06 AM

I had a similar experience too. I was in orientation for my first year of med. school and they decided to place us around the hospital for a bit of shadowing. I was watching a procedure and started hearing a buzzing in my ears. Then I started to tunnel and get light headed. At that point I realized I wasn't going to be able to push it away so I stepped out. I thought "if I could only get fresh air". I guess the nurse who was accompanying me noticed and followed me out. I remember making it to a door in the next room and everything going black. I remember feeling the edge of a sink as I tried to keep myself up and arms guiding me into a chair. That's when my vision started coming back (very slowly). They got me some cool water and I sat out the rest of the procedure. I blame it on the heat of the room, standing, a light lunch that day, the start of my cycle, and some dehydration all thrown together. (That maybe my trying to make myself feel better about it though.) It's nice to know that so many others have had similar experiences.

Posted by: jasmine | May 30, 2007 7:33:10 AM

Happens to everyone really at one point or another. I had a close-call once. I had been going around wards all day when i had the opportunity to watch a bone-marrow biopsy. The ward was really really busy so it had to be carried out in a sort of make-shift cubicle. The patient, a grown man, was screaming and crying and biting the pillow whilst a crowd of nurses, consultant, doctors and a a couple of students peered on - that amount of pain simply overwhelmed me and i felt my knees getting weak and my head swimming.

I confess that i pretended that my cellphone was vibrating to go and answer it outside; but i just sat down and lowered my head till i recovered :P Needless to say, i was back in there the minute i felt better and i made myself watch it...wasn't so bad then :)

Posted by: Clothilde | May 30, 2007 9:12:50 AM

The first time in surgery I was fine until my buddy passed out right next to me -- being a friend I shared her embarrasment by doing the same as well! It's funny now, but it wasn't then.

Posted by: ELP | May 30, 2007 12:19:10 PM

yep. can definately identify with embarassing fainting moments.
I ALWAYS wear compression stockings in surgery now and it helps a lot!

Posted by: em | May 30, 2007 2:46:25 PM

You are not the only one! It is very understandable my experiences were back in my first year anatomy lab! I had a close call from feeling very dizzy and blackness was steeping in!
I quickly made an excuse to the toliet and I went outside for fresh air! I sat down for a while until I recovered and went back into the lab room.

Posted by: Jenny | May 30, 2007 8:46:07 PM

i think i had a similar exp. too.
i was posted in my obstetrics department and whole of our group was planning to see a caesarian section.
initially i was very excited and was on front to see the labour process.
the lady was in sever pain and she was crying which was very difficult to see.then an anaesthesian came and was preparing for spinal anaesthesia.when he exposed the back of the ladyand just punctured the needle, i felt very dizzy and was just begun to fall. although i manage and came outside the OT and sit on a table. all my colleagues were making fun of me . thtz was a very emberrasing situation.

Posted by: sandeep | May 30, 2007 9:07:56 PM

Mine was with family shame included, 2nd year of med school and I got my girlfriend dehydrated, so I took her to my university’s hospital. While a nurse was trying to put some fluids on her vein I started to feel dizzy, then I got all pale, so my girlfriend who was sick had to get out of the bed and let me lie down all pale and ashamed.

Posted by: Kenny | May 30, 2007 11:13:22 PM

I'm a dental student. I remember it was Ramadhan and we went to the emergency hospital for one of our practical sessions. The instructor, who was a surgeon, told us to look around. There was this kid, with a sharps injury in his foot and was bleeding and screaming in pain. A couple of minutes later, while our instructor was showing us some radiographs, all I remember is I felt a bit dizzy, and the next thing, I was lying on one of the beds, my colleages staring at me, and the doctor was enumerating the causes of fainting and syncoype!

Posted by: Muhammed | May 31, 2007 4:08:09 AM

LOL i got it too. like, too many times already -_-" the first time was after few weeks of entering med skool, during briefing by a sister (i think?) on how to do venepuncture. i fainted even before i saw/ did it!! then i always have some dizziness whereever i went to ~ GP attachment, dialysis centre, ward round... i felt dizzy & sweating all over and the next thing i knew is to quickly find a toilet and squat down.. until my color return from pale to pink. BUT THAT WAS IN MY PRE-CLINICAL YEARS. it is so funny that now i have no fear at all to blood whatsoever. LOL. it spontaneously disaapear the moment i entered clinical year and i know i wouldnt want to faint everyday :P i'm in my 4th yr now ^_^

Posted by: anemociti | May 31, 2007 4:39:37 AM

i dont know whether i should tell this or not : actually one of the reason to find toilet is that i usually feel better after passing motion xD seriously!

Posted by: anemociti | May 31, 2007 4:43:08 AM

I stopped counting the times I fainted during school. :) From the time when we where practesing drawing blodd from eachother to when I was looking at x-rays! When in a new situation I just tell everyone in advance that I have a tendency to faint every once in a while, easier to laugh it of after.
But now that I started my internship it gets a bit more annoying. First big time open fracture that I hade to splint with the patient screamin.. yikes. But as long as you mangae to wait with teh DFO untill the splint is ok.. :) Even doctors are humans.

Posted by: nedra_terrax | May 31, 2007 5:11:01 AM

Had quite a few near-DFOs. The worst was our first day standing around and watching in the operating theatre when I was late and hadn't eaten anything. That was really embarrassing because you never want all the surgeons and registrars and people to think you can't stand a little blood and gore.
Still, I guess I can take some comfort in the fact that since it happens to most people some time or the other, the consultants are used to it and won't hold it against me. Even so, now I always get a coffee before clinics!

Posted by: A S | May 31, 2007 7:08:30 AM

I'll graduate as a doctor (in The Netherlands) in a couple of weeks and my experience dates back 3yrs ago. I was doing my surgery rotation and was also 20 weeks pregnant. It had been a very busy day with very little substance intake on my part ( poor baby), I finally after 7hrs of work sat down to eat when my pager went off for an emergency surgery through the trauma unit, that was the end of my meal. I had scrubed and was standing at the operating table with the surgeon and everyone else, I did not suspect anything because I had done this countless times. He started the operation, with the knife that burns while it cuts, within 5sec I was overwhelmed by the smell of burning flesh, (I think due to a combination of hormones, tiredness and lack of vital nutrients) instantly I started feeling the prodromes of nausea like increased saliva production etc. At this point I put my brain to work and start telling myself "you will not throw-up, especially not in your surgical mask". While repeating this to myself I'm trying to brave it and continue with the operation, then I feel a cold sweat run through my whole body, that was when I knew I had to make a decision. It was either I do "it" in my mask and henseforth the patient's abdominal cavity or run to the closest trash can. Well as you can guess my decision was "run to the trash NOW", and there my 2 mouths full I had eaten prior to surgery came rushing out accompanied by some bile. I think I got away with it because I was pregnant, I even got one hour to sit down and have a descent meal (which I could not because my belly wanted nothing at that point). I think almost everybody in the medical field has at least one of this stories to tell.
P/S: The baby was 8pounds despite it all, and she's your average 2year old.

Posted by: | Jun 1, 2007 4:38:24 AM

I'm an undergrad applying to medical school right now and I've had my own personal experience already with this issue. I was shadowing a local Ophthalmologist and wanted to watch her procedures. The first two went okay, but by the third procedure, watching scalpel blades going into the lenses of eyes was really getting to me. One of the nurses thought I was cold and covered me with a lab coat before I realized what was happening, excused myself, and washed my face in the bathroom. After coming back, I felt fine and went on to observe another eight procedures and shadow three other doctors without another one of these incidents. Fortunately for me, I didn't actually fall over, but I could defenitely see how that easily could have happened. It's silly that people think this is embarrassing; it doesn't mean you're not going to make a good doctor or that you can't get over this. I think it's most defenitely a rite of passage; I'm just glad to have passed it. Hopefully, I'll see you'll in medical school.

Posted by: Karthik | Jun 1, 2007 1:05:39 PM

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