Doctor As Insect

Note: Details of this case have been altered to protect patient identities.


A title.

Is this me?

There are times when I wonder if the single purpose of medical school is to whittle away splinters, to separate wheat from chaff, to forge steel from impurities – to remove anything that might distract a person from being a doctor.

A bright, engaging personality is honed into a diagnostic machine.

The endless series of tests and tasks has stretched on for four years. I look back and wonder: am I still me?

Am I still the same person who applied to medical school?

The answer is paradoxical. If I were unchanged, then I’d be stagnant. If I were changed, has it actually been for the better?

Completing the questionnaire for residency application proved enlightening.

Hobbies? How many hobbies did I list on my medical school application? How many do I still practice? Did I pick up anything new along the way? Interests? Work experience? Extra-curriculars?

The answers were sad.

There was a point in my life when I thought that being a Renaissance Man would be the most wonderful thing. To have a wide array of knowledge under my belt, to be able to call upon experiences as needed – such was the spice of life!

A quote from Robert A. Heinlein, science-fiction author extraordinaire, comes to mind: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Specialization is for insects.

Am I an insect? Is my life forevermore naught but doctor?

Do not mistake: I am not ungrateful. Doctor is a word that comes with privilege: not of wealth, but of impact. There is much to be said for being able to impact the lives of so many.

The question, the perennial question: does it come at the cost of our own?

The older generation of physicians, those we call The Greatest Generation , would never have asked. There was no question: a person needed, and the physician was there.

My generation asks.

I ask.

Is it wrong for me to desire life outside the hospital? Is every hour that I spend watching a movie or reading fiction an hour that should have been spent further educating myself? What if that hour contained knowledge that could have saved a life? (Or, to be less dramatic and more medicalese – could have reduced morbidity, mortality, or an adverse outcome?)

Will people blame me? Will I blame myself?

Did I take the place of a student who would have otherwise locked himself in the library and read nothing more entertaining than NEJM for the rest of his life?

Am I guilty for wanting more than just doctor?

Is there a good answer to this? Is there balance in the work and the life of a doctor?

I can’t answer for everyone. Some days, I can’t even answer for myself.

What I believe is this: a happy doctor is better than a harried doctor. Balance leads me to happiness. Others may find happiness strictly in the medical field.

I don’t believe either is wrong.

What I know is this: a happy doctor will be a doctor longer than a miserable doctor. Without balance, I would be miserable. Miserable, I would not be long for doctoring.

Here’s to a long, happy, balanced career as doctor.

I’ll get to that whole balancing thing just as soon as the next test is over.


Tyler Willis, M.D., Class of 2012