Hilariously (or tragically, take your pick), I think I finally know why I want to be a doctor.
Why is it so hilaragic, you ask? What if I told you that I’ve spent hundreds of hours shadowing doctors of all sorts of specialties? What if I told you that had never considered another vocation since the beginning of high school? What if you knew that I’d attended medical school interviews all over the country, and that I passionately insisted that I knew exactly why medicine was for me in every single one? You would definitely ask me why it took me until the fourth day of medical school to actually figure it out!!
Well, it is true that I had some idea why, and those reasons are no less valid now. I still appreciate the fact that proper patient care simultaneously requires my scientific and humanistic faculties; I am still looking forward to being in a position to be a respected voice in regard to the most pressing political issue of my lifetime; and I still cannot wait to create the funkiest all-doctor band in existence. However, nothing spoke to my soul like what I experienced my first few days in medical school. And at the crux of it is that medical school is the absolute hardest thing I could ever fathom doing.
What?? Surely you knew this going in, you say. Everyone knows medical school is hard! But “everyone” thinks it’s hard for the wrong reasons. Everyone knows that you have to take lots of tests, and that you’ll have to study more than you ever have in your whole life… blah blah blah blah blah. What everyone misses is that what we medical students should strive for with every ounce of our will, what we should be shedding blood, sweat and tears for is something far beyond the realm of standardized testing.
Dr. Werner, the Dean of Medical Education, gave us first-years a talk yesterday where he precisely delineated these extra-academic goals. We must seek the utmost standard of professionalism, he implored us, and to be a professional is to be worthy of trust––the trust of the other members of our medical team as well as the most sacred trust, that of our patients and their loved ones. He demanded that we be compassionate, with universal positive regard for our patients, no matter what our biases or their behavior. There are no gomers. We must, without exception, be men and women of integrity, without respect to our pride or inconvenience or disciplinary consequences. We must also prepare to be whole physicians, always knowing that to be truly well is to be physiologically and spiritually healthy, a valuable lesson for the rigorous path that lies ahead of us as well as our future vocation as our society’s healers.
It was pretty apparent that Dr. Werner, if he wouldn’t be sued for it, would have grabbed us all, one by one by our collars and shook us until we frantically, tearfully agreed. There was no compromise in his tone. His messages were clear: this path that we are on will require us to change; the change will be an unspeakably difficult one; and the change will entail a whole lot more than how hard we will are able to hit the books. Far from it.
It occurs to me then that my journey through medical school will necessarily have to be a spiritual one. It is only through a deeply personal and emotional commitment that I believe that I can even begin to embody the qualities of the truly ethical physician. After wandering in an existential netherworld for the past year, I am invigorated by the knowledge that there is a worthy ideal to aspire to, an ideal worthy of my time and attention.
I’m not stupid. I know that what I’ve written above will sound grossly idealistic to most of you, and I suspect that those of you further along in your medical training will be especially skeptical. But somehow, getting good board scores and getting a good residency just wasn’t cutting it as sufficient motivation. I’m actually pretty sure that I will be a pretty sad sack if those were the only things I could shoot for. I’m not saying that I’m going to save the world, or be the smilingest doctor, or that my shots will feel like kisses. I’m just saying that I will try my hardest to make being a good doctor a sacred obligation, because I feel like it deserves it. Sue me if you can’t agree with that.*
*Actually please don’t.