I didn’t grow up wanting to be a physician. But some time during the Fall of my junior year, it occurred to me that medicine might be a good fit. The problem was that I knew next to nothing about medicine, had never interacted with physicians outside of regular check ups and had finished my economics major without ever taking a pre-med class. Was I too late? Do you really need to know what you want to do with your life by the time you are a junior? A senior? Over the past year, I have learned that the answer to these questions is a definitive “no.”
But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be searching. I found my relief in the fact that there are many post-baccalaureate premedical programs—post baccs—that annually admit students who want to change their careers to medicine. Disillusioned investment bankers, overworked lawyers and brave English majors—sometimes as old as 50—flock to post-bacc programs because they see medicine as a personally and financially rewarding calling. Just this past month, I began submitting applications to some of the most selective of these programs and am now waiting to hear back. But it is my journey, not my destination, that I think is particularly instructive.
I didn’t decide that I wanted to be a doctor overnight. And I didn’t really know where to begin, so I asked for help from friends, family members and Duke’s pre-health advisors. They all told me the same thing: If you are thinking about being a doctor, then you need to spend time among the sick. I started getting direct experience with patients in Duke’s Cancer Center and found the experience to be very rewarding. As a volunteer through the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program, I spent roughly four hours every week sharing snacks, soda and an open ear with chemotherapy patients as they were getting their treatments. Outside of the hospital, I read books by Atul Gawande, Siddhartha Mukherjee and others, which helped educate me on the many challenges that physicians face in daily practice.
And after a lot of paperwork and even more waiting, I finally met some real-life physicians. To see medicine from the point of view of the physician and not the patient was life-changing for me. Over the course of the last 12 months, I have worked alongside general surgeons, interventional cardiologists, pediatricians and ER docs from around the country. Although I have seen my fair share of tragedies in that time, the experience that confirmed my interest in medicine came after seeing one of modern medicine’s most routine triumphs.
I joined an interventional cardiologist to place a stent in the coronary artery of a 91-year-old patient, whom I will call Elaine. Elaine had suffered a mild heart attack three days before, and her heart was starved for oxygen. Projected onto a screen above the operating table was a black-and-white image of her chest; the black marked where there was healthy blood flow, the white where there was none. We could see that one whole quadrant of the screen—one chamber of Elaine’s heart—was white, dying from lack of oxygen. The doctor and one of the nurses used a number of wires to work their way to Elaine’s clogged artery, and with a flourish of their lines placed a stent at the congested site. Elaine’s artery was opened, and blood started to flow to her heart again, turning the white on the screen to black. Upon seeing the white turn to gray, I knew that medicine was the right career for me.
My point in this column is not to try to “convert” people to medicine, as if it were that simple. Individuals considering medicine as a career need to understand what they are getting into before making such a huge commitment. Through volunteering and shadowing, I got a sense for the good and bad aspects of being a physician. There were actually a surprising number of physicians who advised me not to pursue medicine. A physician’s life is one of sacrifice: long hours, endless paperwork, insoluble cases and impossible patients. But despite all of that, my experiences over the last year have convinced me that I need to be a physician—in part so that I can try to be a positive agent for change in medicine.
I have also learned two larger lessons. The first is that we ask all the wrong questions when we think about our careers. Instead of asking, “What do I want to do with my future?” we should be asking, “What kind of person do I want to be?” I always knew that I wanted to work in the service of others. And I aspire to be a person who interacts with and empowers other people. As a doctor, I will do both. But there’s a greater lesson in my story and it’s this: Despite popular opinion and our own doubts and fears, it’s never too late to try something new, even medicine. It’s never too late—fortunately!
Paul Horak, Trinity ’13, is a Duke pre-med. This column is the third installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written on the pre-med experience at Duke, as well as the diverse ways students can pursue and engage with the field of medicine.