About a year ago, my boyfriend Peter was in a serious motorcycle accident.
He was driving along a major two-lane road when a car abruptly veered in front of him and slammed on the brakes.He tried to swerve but didn’t have enough time, hit the car and was thrown off his bike onto the concrete.
I found out about it when he called me and asked me to pick him up. He had said he felt fine, but when I got there it was clear he was not, and was getting worse by the minute. An ambulance had already come and gone but he had refused to get in – he didn’t realize in what bad shape he was in, and overall is untrusting of the medical system and doctors (except me).
I was terrified, and threw him in my car and drove him straight to Los Angeles County Medical Center, where I trained. I blew right through the security gate straight to the ambulance entrance, left my car running and ran inside. In my most demanding and self-important voice (honed over years of medical school and residency), I said, “I’m a doctor. My boyfriend was in a motorcycle accident and is hurt. You need to bring him in right away.”
I was that annoying family member who all the medical staff hates, asking too many questions, demanding more pain medication (for him, not me… although I probably could have used some Xanax).
Coming out of the situation, once all the dust had settled, I realized how fortunate I was. Not just that Peter was okay, but that I had the medical knowledge and training I did, and that I was able to advocate for him and change the course of what his injury could have been.
This was one of the first time in years I had felt glad to be a doctor. The initial wide-eyed excitement I had for helping people when I first started medical school had been beat out of me by long hours, sleep deprivation and malignant attendings. After this experience it slowly began to emerge again.
Over the next year of residency I started to feel more in my element. Now that I had finished my internal medicine requirements, I was doing all psychiatry, all the time. I started to know what I was talking about. I started having patients thank me, telling me I really helped them, that they appreciated me, that I had a positive impact on their lives.
It was more rewarding, but I was still emotionally drained. I still had long hours, 24 hour shifts and was challenged with very sick, needy and demanding patients. I still had the more-than-occasional fantasy about quitting residency.
Then, two months ago I started my 3rd year of residency, transitioning from the inpatient psychiatry units to the outpatient clinics… and what a change! Suddenly with the time and emotional space to appreciate my work, I have started to love every day of it.
I now have dozens of patients I take care of. I am their doctor. They come in to clinic, anxious, and wonder, “What’s my new doctor going to be like?” I reassure them. I show them I know what I’m talking about. I tell them I’ll do my best to help them. I can see the relief in their eyes. Some tell me, “Oh good… I’m glad I got you.” It’s the best feeling in the whole world.
Knowledge is powerful.
People talk all the time about caring, but caring is only as good as the knowledge you have to back it up. Caring + knowledge is the ultimate power.
When Peter was in his accident, it was those years I spend hunched over books and working in the hospital that gave me the power to help him. I knew how to maneuver in the system, to explain what was happening to him, to communicate with the doctors in the weird language we talk in.
When my patients come to me with a problem, it is not my empathy alone that helps them, but my empathy plus the years I have spent studying, reading, working, learning.
There’s no shortcut to knowledge.
There is a big movement these days against the idea of traditional schooling for schooling’s sake and finding alternative routes to a successful career. I’m all for avoiding expensive degrees if you don’t need one (speaking as someone with a very expensive degree I’ll be paying off for a long time).
That being said, you may be able to shortcut your way to a career, but you can’t shortcut your way to knowledge. Knowledge comes from putting in the hours. Being really, really good at something takes time. And when you’re good is when your work will be the most fulfilling and you’ll be able to effect the most change.
Knowledge is a gift.
School can be a drag, but not everyone gets the chance to go to college or graduate school and just, you know… learn. If you do, appreciate it. And even if you don’t appreciate it at the moment, at some point you’ll be glad to have the knowledge you do. I know I am. And I’m so glad I didn’t quit during the many, many times I fantasized about it.
Image by A Guy Taking Pictures