Paging Dr. Emily…

During freshman orientation at college I attended some sort of meal with my fellow soon-to-be freshman.  We were assigned seating at big round tables.  As we ate we went around the table proclaiming our intended majors; at least half my classmates, including me, planned to declare “physics”.  Seventeen years later I can’t tell you what the purpose of the meal was, what we ate, or even what meal it was.  However, I can clearly recall that two of the the students at the table added that in addition to whatever their major was to be, they were “pre-med”.  I remember being startled as a flash of jealousy coursed through my body and I was hit by a sudden and entirely unexpected urge to say “me too!”  For a moment, I wanted to be one of those two students; I wanted their future.  Sure, I was always reading about all things medical and I was the rare person who actually enjoyed doctors appointments and found hospitals fascinating, but I had never considered becoming a doctor.  I squashed the feelings of jealousy as I would an inconvenient bug.  Nothing was going to district me from my mission of majoring in physics (with a focus on astrophysics), then pursing my PhD., and finally becoming an astronaut.  Becoming an astronaut was something I had dreamed about since I was seven and half years old.  I was focused, I was ambitious.  It was not a matter of if to me, but when.

A few weeks later, halfway though my first quarter of college, I was so blindsided by my classes that I was no longer thinking about my distant future but about how I was going to survive yet another all nighter of physics problems and still remain conscious in class the next day.  It was four years of my life, but I remember shockingly little about college and not because I was in a drunken haze (I think I can count on one hand the number of times I drank at all in college).  I was so stressed, so deeply unhappy that it is lost to me in a fog.  I had a boyfriend (now Husband) but rarely socialized.  The highlights of my college experience were when I would allow myself a break from our regular Wednesday night physics all-nighter (I literally did not sleep on Wednesday nights for two years in a row) and drive over to In-N-Out burger just before they closed (1:30 am) to procure us some food to sustain us for the rest of the night.  The workload itself was punishing enough, but what truly made the experience miserable was that it turned out I hated physics and math.  I was so bored in my classes.  By the time I realized that I should switch majors to something else (anything else) I was in too deep to change without spending more than four years in college.  At the time, I was barely making ends meet, supporting myself through school with a summer job and loans and with a boyfriend who paid my rent and bought our food most of the time.  I couldn’t fathom adding another year of debt onto my already crushing burden.  I stayed the course, managed to graduate with a B average, got into a second tier graduate school in physics, and then finally euthanized my astrophysics career two quarters into my PhD when I up and quit one day.  I had no idea what to do with my life but conveniently a big aerospace company knew just what to do with me and hired me after a perfunctory interview.  I knew during the interview that I wasn’t the least bit interested in the job but hey I had those massive student loans and my starting salary was more than my dad’s salary at the time and so I took the job.  The next few years can be summed up in a few sentences.  I got married just shy of my 23rd birthday.  After a year I got another, better paying job with a different company (Evil Corporation).  I was good at what I did and built up an expertise in a niche field.  I bought a house at age 24.  I worked full time and also got a masters degree in systems engineering.

I was, by anyone’s measure but my own, a success.

But I had a secret.  When I read, it was never, ever about the latest satellite launch or space technology.   People praised my efficiency at work.  I was efficient because it is just naturally my personality but also because then, when everyone left, I would have time to read what I really wanted.  I read about the influence of hormones on auto immune disorders and how epidurals slowed the progression.  I checked out every doctor’s memoir I could find at the library.  I stayed too long at my own and my children’s doctors appointments asking questions about how things worked longer; seeking out information that I had no real need to know.  For years, no one, not even Husband knew of my “habit”.  I never even acknowledged to myself what I was doing; but I was absolutely ravenous for knowledge.  Once at a party a a friends house (who happened be a resident in emergency medicine) I found a quiet corner of the party and curled up on the sofa happily immersed in his OBGYN textbook.  He found me and was laughing at me for willingly reading such a thing in the middle of the party.  He questioned whether I was actually reading it (I had actually read through about half of it at that point – I am a crazy fast reader) and began to quiz me, “What is the most common cause of heavy uterine bleeding in a woman over 40?”  I shouted out “Fibroids!” loud enough for the other party goers to turn and look curiously in my direction.

Although it seems glaringly obvious in retrospect, it didn’t hit me what all of this met until I was 32 years old and had to have surgery for an endometrioma.   I was at my post-op appointment with my fabulous OBGYN and she asked if a medical student who was working with her could come in and take my history.  I said “sure” and a nervous and oh so young woman came and took my history.  As I helped the med student along, knowing rather a lot more about my condition than she did, I was hit with that same flash of intense burning jealousy that I had experience so long ago.  I wanted so badly to switch places with her, to be 23 and in medical school that I was momentarily rendered speechless.  “Oh”, I remember thinking as I got into the car after the appointment.  “Oh.  I want to be a doctor.  I think I have wanted to be a doctor for a long time.  I belong on the other side of the medical history form.  I get it now.”

Somewhere after that I told Husband about my thoughts and I very quickly followed my telling him with the reassurance that, of course, now it was too late for that.  I knew even then I wanted to leave Evil Corporation but I was thinking something along the lines of taking my aerospace policy experience and parleying that into some sort of healthcare policy job.  Six months later I was pregnant with Baby and was again consumed in the pregnancy and newborn haze.  Until one day the shit hit the fan with Evil Corporation and I just stopped caring about what I should do and started thinking about what I wanted to do.  I started taking prerequisite classes for medical school at our local community college.  I told everyone I was working towards becoming a lactation consultant (which is true) and then casually said “and maybe more”.   After a year and a half of going to school at night without a break, last week, I completed all of the prerequisite courses for lactation consulting and a master of public health.  I will enter a one year lactation consultant program this September and next July (assuming I pass the exam) will be a board certified lactation consultant.  I could then get a master of public health in two years and be on my way to a new career in health policy with a focus on maternal child health.

Then why do I find myself tonight signing up for more classes at the community college for this fall; chemistry and Spanish to be specific?  It will be a shit ton of work to take chemistry and Spanish, plus my lactation classes, plus do lactation clinical rotations two days a week.  Because I can’t let it go, this dream of becoming a doctor.  I am not ready to let it go.

Every day I go back and forth.  There are a myriad of cons to becoming a doctor:  all the time away from my family for med school and residency, taking on massive amounts of debt in my late thirties and early forties, years of inflexible schedules, entering a highly patriarchal, hierarchical system, managed care (being a doctor isn’t what it used to be).  They say that you should only become a doctor if you can’t imagine doing anything else and being happy.  I wish I knew if lactation consulting and the administrative side of public health could be enough for me, but I don’t.  So for now I am leaving the door to medical school open.

I am pretty sure that I should have been a doctor, but I am not sure that I still should be.

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