Wednesday, November 16, 2011

About Face

Did you know I wanted to be a doctor?

I think I was about eight or nine when I decided. My grandfather was a well-respected pediatrician who did some important work with underserved populations and I attended a ceremony in which he was recognized for that work. I had a natural interest in biology and enjoyed quizzing my mom on medical terminology when she went back to school to become a certified medical assistant.

My interest in biology and medicine continued through school. In high school I took as many advanced biology and anatomy/physiology courses as were available, and even joined a few friends in an extra-curricular opportunity to dissect a cat (oh god I was a nerd). During my senior year of high school I applied for a mentorship program which allowed me to spend several afternoons a week working with my mentor, a family practice physician. I saw patients with him, practiced dictation and charting and completed a project on developing patient education materials.

When I interviewed at colleges, one of the things that cemented my interest in Scripps was the quoted 93% acceptance rate to medical school. I declared a biology major as soon as I could, and set myself up on the track to complete all pre-med requirements. This included figuring out how to study abroad while sticking to a pretty rigorous schedule of pre-med classes; there was only one school in the world that offered a second-semester Organic Chemistry course when I needed it. That's how I ended up at the University of Sussex in the spring of 2001.

I can't exactly pinpoint the moment when doubt started to creep in. I elected not to take the MCAT prep course that my fellow study-abroad pre-meds were taking in England...I think I made the choice under the guise of saving the not-insignificant cost.

My time in England was obviously life-changing (hello future husband!) and I came back with a little more doubt. I was still full steam ahead towards medical school at this point, attending lectures on med school interviews, looking into internships and beginning my thesis on the history of tuberculosis in Alaska. I bought MCAT prep books and started on a schedule of studying.

Senior year of college was kind of hard. My closest friend had moved off campus into an apartment and I was feeling a little lonely. I was conducting my relationship with Chris over several thousand miles (a lot harder back then before skype, etc) and not entirely sure how it was going to end up. I was more than ready to be done with school but not really looking forward to the next steps.

It was during an MCAT study session that I finally realized that part of the reason I was feeling so unsettled about my future was that I actually DIDN'T want to be a doctor anymore. I'd had so many experiences that left me feeling like I wanted more out of the following 10 years than more school, more pressure, more stress. So I opted out. I have no memory whatsoever of any of the conversations about that decision...I have a vague recollection that I felt like I'd be letting people down, but I'd made the decision and never wavered.

I can say with 100% certainty that it was the best decision I have ever made. When I think about how different my life would be had I followed along that path, I feel like I made a narrow escape. I'm sure I would have found my way and built my happiness around that set of circumstances, but in my last job I developed a very in-depth knowledge of what it is like to be a doctor in the current environment and I can say with confidence, NO THANKS.

Medicine is still what interests me. I listen to Doctor Radio, I like reading about various medical developments and I'm always drawn to the Health and Science articles in the news. I even (can't believe I am admitting this) added an anatomy coloring book to my Christmas wishlist (in my defense, I spend a decent amount of time coloring with the kids and I'd love to keep my knowledge up).

I wonder sometimes (like, say, when I am paying my student loan bills) if, knowing how it all turned out, I'd have chosen differently in school. Science is what I loved, so I think I would have stuck with the biology major, but it would have been nice to have a little more latitude in choosing other courses; for instance it would have been nice to take a few more classes in literature and writing. I certainly used a lot of my background knowledge in each of the jobs I had after college. I don't know what, if anything, I will do career-wise in the future but I'd like to think it will further utilize all that hard work and knowledge taking up valuable real estate in my brain.

I do think that my experience will lead me to encourage my kids to explore all their different interests in school and not feel pressured to commit to one passion too early. I hope that my story will help them feel comfortable listening to their inner voices and not to be afraid to make difficult decisions and follow an unexpected path.

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