My entire childhood I wanted to become a doctor. When asked by adults what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was always the same answer. Never did I consider being a fireman or policeman or professional athlete. It was always the same answer: doctor. You see, my father was a small-town, general practice doctor who was somewhat of a legend in town because of his unfailing dedication to his patients. He delivered babies and performed minor surgeries as well as the other things a small-town general practitioner would be required to do. My father even performed his own vasectomy. When teased by many of his friends for being nuts for doing this, he would have an “ah shucks” moment and tell everyone it was no big deal since he only had one testicle.
On occasion, I would get to make rounds with him and go on house calls. Those were exciting times indeed because I rarely saw my father. We seldom went on family vacations. When we did, it was usually to attend a medical meeting, and he would not miss a session despite my siblings and my insistence that he play hooky. This lack of attention was extended to my two sisters as well. He rarely attended any of our sporting or social events. We would be living in the same house and sometimes not see him for a week. He would be up and gone before I awoke and he would not come home until I was fast asleep. During my teens and college years, I became resentful and occasionally lashed out.
We were raised by a supermom that never missed any of our events and showered us with love and attention. My mother, being the medical school wife and loyal companion, would always let us know that our father loved us, but the people in our town really needed his attention.
Despite my resentment at my father’s behavior, I pursued a career in medicine. When I finished my residency in internal medicine, I did something that I thought I would never do. I joined my father in his medical practice.
For the first time in my life, I was getting to know my father — not as a father (it was too late for that) — but as a colleague and friend. What a blast! We would see patients together, and he gave me a plethora of general practice based tips that I had not experienced in an internal medicine residency. We would even go out for a beer after work and talk about our day, much to the chagrin of my mother. I also began working all hours of the night and day. I even opened his practice seven days a week and manned most of those hours. Fortunately, I had no wife or kids to ignore while I was expanding this practice.
About two years after joining my father, he had a massive stroke and died at the ripe old age of 64. I was devastated. I had just made a new friend, and he was taken away from me after only two years. Upon his death, I had an epiphany. I noticed that when he died, not one person in our town went without health care. The other doctors in town, as well as myself, began seeing his patients, and not one of them suffered because of my father’s death. You see, my father thought he was irreplaceable. Thus, he missed one of the most important things in life: family.
Not long after my father’s death, I left the practice that I had resurrected. At that time, we were the busiest group in town and had six physicians working out of that office. I went to a different city 20 miles away where I knew no one and began a practice limited to work and auto injuries. Because very few physicians were interested in this demographic, my practice exploded, and I currently have nine clinics in two states.
I also married shortly after I left my dad’s practice and had three sons who always knew where to look to find their dad at each of their ball games. The only games I ever missed were when they had two games going on at the same time.
My dad taught me a lot. Over time through the coalescing of his teachings with my experiences, I discovered that medicine is very important and quality care is essential. However, I also have come to know that as a physician, these objectives can be obtained while experiencing a happy and healthy family life.
Stephen F. Chambers is an internal medicine physician.
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