Tonight I spoke with UT’s Plan II Pre-Medical Society, answering their questions about what it’s like to become and be a doctor. Here’s some of the advice this old man shared with the youngsters.
Embrace Your Gifts and Passions
Early in his career, the late physician and author Oliver Sacks badly wanted to be a neuroscientist. The only trouble was he just wasn’t very good at it. After a number of mishaps in his attempts to do research, his supervisors firmly told him his future was not in the lab. Instead, he was sent to work with patients with severe degenerative neurological diseases living in a long-term care facility. While his contemporaries saw this kind of work as a dead-end, Sacks found it very much to his liking. At the nursing home, he was able to spend long hours with patients learning their stories. Out of this experience, he discovered his gift for writing about what it’s like to live with a serious neurological condition. Sacks’ books and articles have evoked empathy and interest in people who would otherwise be overlooked. He has drawn medicine’s attention to the patient’s experience of illness, rather than simply studying and addressing disease. As Nobel Prize-winning scientist Eric Kandel wrote, Sacks “transformed the view of the mind for millions of people in a way that is both insightful and entertaining.” Imagine how much the world would have missed if Oliver Sacks had insisted on being a neuroscientist instead of embracing his gift for hearing and writing patients’ stories.
I recently saw a patient with symptoms I simply could not make sense of. As I asked her questions about what she was feeling, more and more interesting details about her life came forth. I followed my curiosity and soon we were discussing changes in her most important relationships and transitions that were taking place. And then the cause of her symptoms became clear. Just by following my curiosity, rather than directly trying to figure out what was wrong.
It is also important to be curious about systems, customs, and institutions. Medical students should embrace the naivete they bring to their work. Medicine’s pedagogical method of apprenticeship leads it to honor tradition and hierarchy. It is slow to embrace change and question itself. While students are learning the culture and methods of medicine, I encourage them to also respectfully question why things are the way they are. This is how breakthroughs and innovation happen. The disciplines of hospice and palliative care emerged when people looked at how patients were spending the end of their lives and asked if there could be a better way. Was it really necessary to die in an intensive care unit connected to tubes and wires, surrounded by strangers and beeping machines? Or might it be much better to die at home in your own bed with family at our your side?
There is more to life than medicine Keep up your relationships with your friends and family. Exercise. Take time to do what recharges your battery–music, books, writing, sports, travel, being outdoors. What good is it if you become a doctor, but in the process are transformed into a miserable, boring person?
Anyway. I hope the students gained something out of our time together. I enjoyed being with them and sharing what I’ve learned.
October 15, 2015 at 12:27 pm
So proud of you!
Aletha Cress Oglesby, M.D.
October 19, 2015 at 1:50 pm
Nice essay Dr. James. I wish someone had told me this before I started medical school. I finally learned it by experience and still try to practice all three.
October 19, 2015 at 7:24 pm