Notes from a Medical Student:

What Do You Want to Be?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I heard a woman ask a little girl at the park a week or two ago. This was during my lunch break, midway through a long day of studying.

“Maybe a teacher, or maybe a doctor,” she said.

I chuckled to myself when I heard that. Apparently, no matter how hard I try, I can't get away from medicine for even an hour.

For whatever reason, adults seem to like asking children of all ages that question. I used to think very little of this commonplace interaction between the generations. But hearing it that day-after a month of studying nine or 10 hours a day, after two years of classes and mountains of debt, not to mention the whole process of getting into medical school in the first place-I wondered if that little girl might give a different answer if she had even the slightest idea what it really means to pursue a medical career.

Goodness knows I didn't at her age. When I was young, I told people I wanted to ride horses for a living, and during stressful moments recently I've wondered if that might have been a better option.

I wonder how many kids say they want to be doctors, especially in the first decade or so of life? More than a few, I would imagine, and far more than say, “I want to be a lawyer,” or “I want to be a CEO.” Perhaps this is because people of all ages and walks of life interact with doctors. For most of us, the doctor was there when we entered the world and will be there when we leave it, with a few visits in between to help us feel better when we are sick, stay healthy, or just check to see how we are doing. The white coat and stethoscope are part of a uniform even toddlers recognize. I guess it's natural for the profession of medicine to make a child's short list.

At this point, I am just starting what may be my last summer vacation for a long time. I'll have a break of a little less than four weeks before I will start rotations and begin to see patients and learn how to care for them. I am both excited and terrified by this thought. There is still so much more to learn, and I can't help but wonder how much my life is going to change.

Will I be able to work the long shifts, or will I fall asleep on my feet after being at the hospital longer than most people are even awake? Will I have any time left over to take care of my own needs? To spend time with the people I love? Will I ever be able to keep that white coat clean? More importantly, what will it be like to help a child come into the world, or to support a patient fighting cancer? How will it feel the first time I do something that helps to save someone's life? And how will I cope when I have to accept that no matter how hard I try or how much I learn, sometimes it is just someone's time to go?

For me, this break has been a time to catch my breath and think about all that lies ahead. As I watch friends struggle to find or hold onto jobs, as I reflect on the fact that at 27, I am still in school and taking out student loans, and as the future role of physicians continues to get cloudier, I often wonder if I made the right choice. Someday, when I ask children what they want to be when they grow up, if I hear the response, “I want to be a doctor,” how will I react? Will I feel pride and camaraderie, and smile as I tell them how rewarding it can be to help those in need? Will I warn them off and tell them that medicine “isn't what it used to be,” and that it's no longer worth the years of study and the immense burden of carrying the suffering of others home with you every day? Or will I look at them and remember that they are still only children who have many years to experience life before they need to make any such decisions?

I guess I can only wait and see.