Many kids want to become doctors, and many doctors want their kids to be doctors too. Once I had a great opportunity to show my son how cool it could be. I spend a week each year in Honduras working in remote mountain villages, and take one of my kids along. It was the end of the day, we were packing the trucks to head back to town, when I heard shouting from the road, “El doctor, el doctor!”
Two villagers were coming up, carrying a makeshift litter of two tree branches draped with blankets. Inside the blankets was an 8 year-old boy, face twisted in pain. Peeling back the covers, I saw a huge chunk of flesh missing from his right thigh. Excited voices informed us that he had just been bitten by a pig.
We unpacked the trucks, moved back into the schoolhouse we had been using, and pushed school tables together to lay him on. One of the other doctors, an anesthesiologist, injected a nerve block in our patient’s hip to numb his leg. While I was arranging my surgical tools, I thought, “Great, my boy will see his Dad be a hero,” like an episode of the TV show MASH.
However, as I started working, I noticed my son at the far side of the room, his back to us. When I called him to come see, he said he’d rather not. Instead of exciting him, the blood, the wound, and the child’s pain made him sick. So much for Dad The Hero and his son the doctor; my boy was going to go another way.
None of my kids want to be a doctor, though they occasionally like the idea of being a doctor. Many feel that way: it sounds fun to have the prestige and income, to help others in a meaningful way, to have some excitement. But my kids know better- it takes a lot more, at least 11 years of school and training, than just liking the idea.
It takes perseverance. What helped me was that I loved science (unlike my kids). Studying biology and chemistry was just plain fun. Also, I wanted to care for others using science, and was undaunted by the long hours. I wanted adventure too, and medicine promised that.
I wanted to be a doctor since sixth grade, but some decide that later. One resident of mine failed college after his first semester, already not your typical path to an MD! His dad was a nursing home administrator, and while he was moping about his academic disaster, his dad said, “While you’re doing nothing, come spend time with some of my patients. They’re so lonely.”
The first patient he went to see had cancer, as well as being elderly. He sat down with the man, they started talking, and hours later he was still there. They became fast friends for years, until the man’s death. That visit stimulated this resident to continue his dream of patient care. He became a paramedic, and after several years with EMS, got serious about college, and went on to medical school. In 4 weeks he graduates residency to be a full-fledged doctor.
Though we discussed above that becoming a doctor means loving science, it’s really about taking care of people. Often that ideal is lost in the rigors of the eleven year training, where student live and breathe medicine and science. Patients become subjects of study, rather than people in need.
But immersion in medicine, becoming a “medical nerd,” is pretty much required. First, students need all A’s and B’s in four years of college, usually in a science degree. Then, only one-third of medical school applicants get accepted to go on. The next four years in medical school are even harder- 50-plus hours per week of class, study, and hospital time, instead of the 15 to 18 hours class time in college. After medical school comes residency, where the “resident” doctor works 80-hour weeks apprenticing in a specialty. Residency takes three years for the basic specialties (pediatrics, adult medicine, family practice), more years for OB/GYN, surgery, or subspecialties.
But if you are not dissuaded, and want a life of profound duty and fulfillment, service and excitement, and have a capacity for delayed gratification (I was 29 years old when I finished school and training), go for it! Just don’t forget about your patients.