Remember why you got into medicine in the first place

Remembering why we got into medicine in the first place can often soften the edges of long, difficult days.

My story unfolded on a circuitous route to medical school. I started with a master’s degree in sociology, and my first job after I graduated was working for the Virginia Center on Aging. I administered hour-long assessment surveys to the elderly population of the state. I would drive my old Volkswagen to the specified house on the survey map and cold call these older folks, asking if I could come into their homes to assess their needs.

In retrospect, I can see how much the world has changed. I would never consider doing such a thing these days. Back then, I didn’t even have a cellphone to call for back up. In fact, the only time I wouldn’t knock on the door was when there was an electric fence or a really mean looking dog in the yard.

As I completed the surveys, I would hear the same answers over and over whenever I asked the older people about their medical problems. They would tell me they were taking a pink pill, but they weren’t sure what it was for. When I asked why they didn’t know the name of their medication or why they were taking it, they would tell me their doctors “didn’t have time” to explain it to them.

Huh?

Back then, doctors had a bit more time in their offices to spend with patients. Go figure! After hearing the same responses about 49 times in the first three months, I began to feel a nudge to do something better for these people, and others like them. I had always had part-time jobs in the medical field while I was in school: I worked as an EKG technician, a ward clerk, and as a medical assistant.

After spending months working in the field with the survey respondents, I felt compelled to apply for medical school. I signed up for a semester of pre-med classes while I continued to work.

I called my parents one night to tell them about my decision. In my family, it was understood that I had to support myself during my schooling. My conversation was more of a request for emotional support than one of financial support. Nonetheless, I will never forget my dad’s response: “That is the dumbest idea I have ever heard! I don’t think you have any idea what you are talking about, and we do not support you in this. Period.”

Wow.

So much for all those parents who are excited when their children decide to be doctors. Well, long (very long!) story short, I did the pre-med work, was accepted into medical school, followed by my ophthalmology residency and then my oculoplastic fellowship. At my medical school graduation, my dad wrote on the card, “Guess I was wrong.”

In retrospect, I think my dad’s reaction served me well. It made me stronger and more determined to reach my goal.

Do you remember why you decided to become a doctor? I invite you to think back to your why. Why did you decide to be a doctor? Why did you choose to sacrifice time, money, and energy on that dream? Dig down deep. I’ll bet you have a really good story, too. I would love to have you share it in the comments below.

Remember, we’re here for each other, as well as for our patients.

Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist, speaker and personal coach.  She blogs at Love Medicine Again and her upcoming book, Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine, will be available this summer. She can also be reached on Twitter @StarlaFitchMD.

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