Growing up, I heard the question so many times that I started to hum it to the tune of that song from Frozen that Elsa and Anna sing –
Do you want to be a doctor?
Come on, Let’s go and play!
I never see you anymore, come out the door, it’s like you’ve gone away!
I’m no Idina Menzel, but I found myself very much the Elsa, hearing this question over and over again. More often than not, I would even be asked if I was sure. I remember even at fourteen how offended I was that adults dared question my dreams. As I grew older, I began to understand that it was just a way for them to gauge my commitment to what I believed would be (and is now) my life’s work.
Sometimes, though, I find myself asking potential medical school students if they want to be a doctor in the same way. Not because I doubt their resilience or their commitment but because I want them to realize why they want to be doctors. I want to share with you the ways that I answered this question. Not the question ‘do I want to be a doctor?’ but the real, underlying question: ‘why do I want to be a doctor?’ .
#1 A lifetime of learning
When I thought about what I wanted to do in my life, I knew that I wanted to be in a field that constantly evolved, changed and really required continuing education. The one thing I remember thinking as a child was that I loved to read and so I wanted to work in a field that required reading – I obviously did not realize what I was signing up for! As a medical graduate, though, I have a deep appreciation for this lifetime of learning. I love the fact that medicine is always on the precipice of something bold, something different and something new and I love that fact that we get to learn about it first.
#2 Choosing to show up every day without fail
More than the ability to commit, I realized quite quickly during school that it is discipline that sets the successful apart in medicine. It is not the natural gifts or talents, or the test-taking skills or inherent academic abilities that make a doctor, but the person who decides to show up every day. It is the person who reads even when they are tired. It is the person who scarfs down their lunch for extra study time, the person who gets home tired but still sits down to their books anyway. It is the person who had a bad day, the person who had a terrible week, the person who doubts they belong and yet, chooses to show up anyway. They are the people that become doctors.
#3 Sacrificing for the dream
I don’t think I realized how much I would be sacrificing until after I graduated undergrad. Many people talk about the sacrifice of a social life – how you’re so busy that you don’t have time for anything but medicine or how you give up dinners out or partying to study all the time. What many people don’t realize, however, is that the larger part of the sacrifice often comes after graduation. After your four years of study, when you graduate, many of your friends have settled into their careers. They are the supervisors and managers, the department chairs or junior partners. While you are just beginning, their careers sustain them – they have the white-picket fence and the house they just bought. Even more are newly married and many have children. We begin to exist on a different timeline by choice. Knowing that doesn’t always make it any easier, but holding on to our sense of purpose – our why – makes it possible.
#4 Being part of something bigger than myself
I truly believe that life is best spent in the service of others. Even more than that, I believe that action begets action. Small things turn into big things. Kindness creates kindness. And in the field of medicine, I am able to see that every single day for the rest of my life. My legacy may be a far cry from those of my predecessors – I don’t foresee my name on a textbook, or a bacteria or syndrome holding my name – but the ability to pass on knowledge, to learn from those that come before me, and to reach back to those who follow is something that I truly cherish.
Reflecting on my “why” in medicine gave me more than the usual in-depth analysis of my purpose for interview answers. The answers I came up with were not some rote response that I chose to share whenever someone asked me about pursuing medicine or chasing a dream. These were the answers that I kept close, the answers I looked to on rainy days. They were the mantras I repeated in the quiet of the library or as teardrops fell on notebook pages. They kept me saying yes on the days that I decided medicine was too hard and on the days I thought I had had enough, they were enough to keep me from walking away.
The usual wanting to lead a lifetime of service or choosing to go into medicine to help people is absolutely sprinkled into my answers, though it may not be readily apparent. But for me, it was never the main reason because in truth, there are plenty of careers that exist to serve others in very real and equally demanding ways. Realizing that I truly wanted to be a physician more than any other profession came to me as a result of an ordinary terrible day when I stumbled back into my dorm room after a long day of classes, drenched in sweat from the tropical heat, starving, and two seconds from bursting into tears. And yet…
I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else.