The greatest joy in my professional life comes immediately after the conclusion of a pediatric anesthetic. I stay with the child until the anesthetic depth has dissipated, the breathing tube is removed, and the child is awake and safe with the recovery room nurse in the Post Anesthesia Care Unit. At that point I walk out to the waiting room to find the parents so I bring them back to see their child. I invariably have a bounce to my step, and I’m a bit choked up with anticipation. I’ve done this enough times to know what to expect. The mother and father are waiting with wide eyes and worried looks on their faces. I give them a reassuring smile and my first words are, “Everything went perfectly. Your son (or daughter) is safe. Follow me.” The three of us return to the bedside in the recovery room, where the mother and child reunion occurs (cue up the Paul Simon soundtrack). The parents fawn over their child, the child reaches out his or her arms, the relief is palpable, and I’m proud to have contributed to the positive outcome.
Why go to medical school? Bright, hard-working college students have choices to make. Many ambitious young people wonder if they should apply to medical school. It’s difficult to get into med school, the journey is long (four years of medical school followed by three to seven years of residency), and the tuition can be high.
Why go to medical school? The daughter of one of my friends is an undergraduate business school student, and her last summer internship was with Proctor and Gamble working in the sales and marketing force selling Clorox. Selling bleach is a career choice radically different from going to medical school.
Do you want to sell bleach, or do you want to help people? The answer to “Why do you want to go to medical school?” is almost that simple. So many jobs in America are related to selling some product, some service, or some commodity. Becoming a physician is about helping people, and it’s also about making your own life have a greater purpose.
“Why do you want to be a doctor?” is the first question asked at most medical school interviews. Answers vary. Why do young men and women choose to become doctors nowadays? One guiding factor might be economics. The average salary for a physician in the United States is in excess of $250,000. To a 22-year-old, that high salary is alluring. Non-medical students who pursue careers in teaching, engineering, or business will start at lower annual salaries, but the future income of a physician is balanced against the deferred gratification of the years involved in their education. The student must pay for four years of medical school tuition and living expenses, and then work for meager wages for 3-7 years afterwards as a resident. The medical student delays the onset of their “real world” employment until age 30-32. Non-medical students who go to work straight out of college at age 22 may already have families, mortgages, multiple cars, and perhaps a vacation home, while the 32-year-old physician has an 80-hour-a-week job, $250,000 of student loans, and the obligation to take care of sick patients at 3 a.m. It’s not an easy life, it’s not all fun, and most doctors wonder at one time or another whether they made the right choice. Making a lot of money is not the right answer to the question of why you want to go to medical school.
So why do we go to medical school? Young men and women who have a physician parent are in the best position to reply from the heart—they’re aware that their parent works long hours, reads incessantly to stay well informed, and gets out of bed in the middle of the night to handle emergencies. A doctor’s son or daughter has heard all the good and bad stories that describe a physician’s lifestyle. But most college students don’t have a doctor for a parent, and most college students have a little idea what the lifestyle of a physician would feel like. My father was a welder. I had no family experience to guide my career choice. For students like me, without a physician parent, it’s important to work medical volunteer jobs and/or research jobs to test the waters before applying to medical school, to decide whether the life of a doctor would appeal to them.
Why go to medical school? Each new patient I meet treats me with respect—a respect I don’t get if I’m outside of the hospital walking down the street or shopping at a grocery store. Years ago I shared this impression with my wife, and she said, “Of course your patients treat you with respect. You’re about to take their lives into your hands. They’re nervous, they’re scared, and the last thing they want to do is to get you in a bad mood!” This may be true, but the respect your patients give you is bona fide, and it’s a feeling few other jobs can offer.
Why go to medical school? I don’t think you’ll ever get equivalent joy out of selling bleach (or some other commodity) that you’ll gain helping other human beings with their health problems. Medicine is a profession. A career in medicine is an opportunity to entwine your work life with other people’s lives in a meaningful and remarkable way. You might make more money as a CEO or a venture capitalist, but few other jobs bring the potential to change lives for the better to the degree that being a physician does.
When you go to your medical school interview and the professor asks you “Why do you want to be a doctor,” the answer from your heart must be five words long:
“I want to help people.”
Your reward for becoming a doctor will arrive years later, when you feel what I feel when I reunite parents with their child after surgery. You’ll feel the joy and satisfaction of a purposeful life.
P.S. In 2012 the journal Anesthesiology published my poem “The Metronome,” which describes a scene from my life as a pediatric anesthesiologist:
To Jacob’s mother I say,
“The risk of anything serious going wrong…”
She shakes her head, a metronome ticking without sound.
“with Jacob’s heart, lungs, or brain…”
Her lips pucker, proving me wrong.
“isn’t zero, but it’s very, very close to zero…”
Her eyes dart past me, to a future of ice cream and laughter.
“but I’ll be right there with him every second.”
The metronome stops, replaced by a single nod of assent.
She hands her only son to me.
An hour later, she stands alone,
Pacing like a Palace guard.
Her pupils wild. Lower lip dancing.
The surgery is over.
Her eyebrows ascend in a hopeful plea.
I touch her hand. Five icicles.
I say, “Everything went perfectly. You can see Jacob now.”
The storm lifts. She is ten years younger.
Her joy contagious as a smile.
The metronome beat true.
Published in September 2017: The second edition of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.
In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.
Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.
Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.
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