When selecting a specialty, it’s OK to choose happiness

I began pursuing a career in medicine with the fervent desire to become a neurosurgeon one day. When someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered neurosurgeon without missing a beat. I chose neurosurgery in high school after falling in love with the nervous system and watching Gifted Hands. I wanted to be like Dr. Ben Carson before his political debut. At that point, I had never seen a Black doctor let alone a Black neurosurgeon, and I was inspired! From the moment I decided I wanted to be a neurosurgeon and nothing else, I started pursuing it full force. I enrolled as a Neuroscience major in college and shadowed neurosurgeons. I did brain-related research. I was so passionate and so enthralled that I thought there was no other path for me. But I was quite mistaken.

As a third-year medical student, I have now completely changed my mind, and I have almost every neurosurgeon and every neurosurgery resident I have ever interacted with to thank. I say thank you in the most sincere way possible because they have truly saved me from a life of unhappiness.

I spent two years doing research in a neurosurgery department before starting medical school. Those two years were some of the worst of my life. I was belittled and mistreated by my boss in a way that, to this day, leaves me with PTSD. I shadowed in that department and was met with very little warmth. It was evident that they were not interested in me, and why would they be. I was some random research assistant. After that experience, I had to figure out something else to focus my energy on. It did not seem like neurosurgery was for me. I decided to pursue pediatric surgery instead. I even went as far as starting an interest group for it at my school. However, in my second year, we completed our neuro-anatomy and neurology section of our pathophysiology course, and I was enraptured once again. This time I knew what I was signing up for. The first Black female neurosurgery resident to match at Johns Hopkins in 2017 made me believe that I could do it. I prayed and hoped that my school’s department would be better than the last one I encountered.

I was mistaken. My two weeks as a third-year on neurosurgery have been one of my least favorite parts of the year. The residents have toxic relationships with each other and the attendings. None of them seem remotely interested in teaching medical students. I was not alone in this sentiment. Our surgery clerkship director even went as far as to tell one of my classmates to sort of feign direct interest in neurosurgery so the team would not ignore him. I am honestly left wondering why it has to be this way. Are people who go into neurosurgery intrinsically not the nicest people, or is there something about the training that changes their attitude?

Here I was two weeks after a neurosurgery rotation with a second toxic environment. I was floored. I did not know what to do or where to turn. I was upset and torn. As a Black woman, an aspect of my interest in neurosurgery was to show other Black women that they can also do it. I wanted to pursue the field so badly. For myself, for my parents who were proud of their only daughter becoming a doctor, for the countless little Black girls who had never seen a Black female doctor, let alone a Black female neurosurgeon. But I had to be realistic. The environment was not for me, and the people were not for me. There was no longer any joy in my decision to pursue neurosurgery, just obligation.

I had to sit and think about what was best for me. One week into my OB/GYN rotation, I decided that was the field for me, and I have not looked back. The weight that lifted off my shoulders when I made this decision can only be described by the Hulk lifting a car off of my body. I laughed when people told me I would change my mind about what I wanted to do during my third year. I was so sure of myself. Now I am glad I kept an open mind. I cannot wait to usher new life into the world daily as an OB/GYN physician.

As a Black woman, I often feel this immeasurable responsibility to be an example to others. I mentor many Black women pursuing a career in medicine, and I cannot wait to tell them that it is ok to choose happiness over responsibility.

The author is an anonymous medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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