Three years ago, in the midst of all that was happening with health care reform, I thought about if I’d ever recommend medicine to my daughter. I thought and thought about that issue and looked deep inside myself for reasons one might still choose this profession, then penned “The Top Ten Reasons to Be a Doctor.” It is, by far, the most popular post on my blog, having been read by more people than any other I’ve written.
But little did I think my youngest might heed this advice. Unknown to me, she left for college as an environmental studies/economics major, to abruptly decide one week later after some soul-searching of her own to consider a pre-med curriculum. I couldn’t help but feel a rush of pride, but also a huge amount of concern, for no one can tell anyone else what this path is like until it’s been traveled. One thing I know: it she wants it, she’s very capable of doing it.
And as part of her growing enthusiasm for this field and (I suspect) recent rewarding experiences she had as a lifeguard at our public beach this past summer, she’s even thinking about training to become an EMT while studying at college.
My first thought, of course, was “Heck ya! Dive in! You’ll love that! What a great skill to have!” But after a night of rest and reconsideration, I have another piece of advice for her.
You see there’s a little secret every doctor lives with throughout their career and never talk about: their closet. We’ve all got one and we use it sparingly, and you don’t want to fill it up too soon because it has to last your entire medical career.
You see, your closet is where you store life’s experiences that are so horrible, so painful, so shocking, that you can never tell anyone (except, perhaps, another doctor) about them. It is the place where you put the images you see that you’d really rather never talk about. Ever. The gross stuff, the gross images, the gross sounds, and the gross smells. Things so bad I can’t even write them here. That stuff. And I know EMTs, like doctors, have a closet of their own.
You’ll be surprised how dark that closet is and how fast it can fill.
But you also need to know that the closet exists, it is real, and how to clean that closet when considering the path toward becoming a doctor. This is probably one of the most important skills outside of medicine that a doctor can muster. So, I’ll ask that my daughter to reconsider the EMT class for now and do something entirely, crazily, stupidly different and fun. (Whether she’ll do this or not remains to be seen.)
For this is how we have to learn to clean a bit of our closet, or at the very least, make it a little bigger. Use this precious time before all of the isolation of studying and commitment that medicine requires to expand yourself. Learn to play badminton, to paint, to play a guitar, to debate, to sing, to ballroom dance, to fly or just to love and appreciate what’s out there.
The point is this: learn to do other things besides medicine that will engage your brain, hold you firm, and make you happy. Because medicine’s a long haul: a lifelong haul that never keeps adding to that secret closet.
As a student of medicine, your job, throughout all that lies ahead, is it to make sure you always have the renewable resources to get outside medicine so life stays rich and medicine remains, net sum, rewarding. Because as as rewarding as medicine can be at first, it can wear you down unless you always know how to properly size (and maybe even start to empty) a bit of that secret closet that doctors all share.
Wes Fisher is a cardiologist who blogs at Dr. Wes.