August 1, 2012
Once upon a time, I knew I’d be a doctor because it was the perfect thing to do, the path to high-achieving success and the dream of bright-eyed college freshmen all over. Now, I realize that a career as an M.D. is not the answer to life’s problems, but it will give me more power to help than I have now. I want to learn about medicine because I love biology and the intricacies of the human body. I want to become a doctor because I never again want to look in someone’s eyes and tell her that I cannot help her without knowing that I did everything possible.
Since I was four, I knew I was going to medical school. I remember my two moms—both OBGYNs—leaving for the hospital in the morning with bright make-up and fresh hair spray. They smelled of baby powder and perfume. I thought they were the most beautiful mothers a girl could have—I wanted to be exactly like them.
In junior high, I butchered a wild boar and was amazed at the color of the organs and the smoothness of the fasciae; on the ride home, I decided to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. In high school, I shadowed my anesthesiologist stepfather and imagined myself striding through the serene hallways, the sandman in blue scrubs. I went to college on a National Merit Scholarship and signed up for the biology and chemistry classes, prepared to jump through all the hoops like every other pre-health student.
But that first year, two things struck me. First, I loved biology. Second, most people didn’t care about the science classes. Two-thirds took them only for future medical school applications. I asked my peers why they wanted to be doctors and heard the same thing repeated: They wanted to help people. They wanted a good job. They wanted their parents to be proud. Those classmates all said the same thing, and it sounded exactly like the mantra running through my head. My ideals were perfectly valid, but now they seemed clichéd—I questioned my motivations.
Instead, I pursued my interest in conservation biology. After college, I would find a job—chasing butterflies or counting ophiuroids—that paid a pittance but made me happy. I would contribute to pure science. I would be an anti-materialistic biologist-bum and travel the world.
Unfortunately, bums and researchers are observers. Observers rarely effect change. After a semester in Central America and a summer in Indonesia, I flew to Haiti to volunteer at a hospital over Thanksgiving. I thought that my altruism would let me dream sweet dreams when I returned to my cozy life.
In Haiti, I learned that the hardest thing I would do in twenty-two years of life is look in the eyes of a woman holding her cholera-stricken daughter and tell her that I couldn’t help. I couldn’t give food. I couldn’t offer medical care. Money, education and technology at my fingertips haunted my words. Across the language barrier, I couldn’t even proffer consolation. I felt like a liar, a pompous fool, a deluded do-gooder.
I paddled in Hawaii. I speedskated in Arizona. I surfed in Bali. I hitchhiked in Costa Rica. I got a Fulbright in Indonesia. I watched people die in Haiti, as I stood by helpless.
François had hydrocephalus. His family abandoned him in June. They operated twice. Both times it failed. I wheeled his crib into the back room, because there was nothing more to do. He would die in that room, ninety minutes from the most powerful country in the world. His arms and legs were rigid against his sides, his toes pointing straight out. He stared at the ceiling with white showing all around his brown eyes. Fourteen months old, he was frozen like that, too weak to move. I cried when I closed the door.
In Haiti, I assisted, organized and fetched, but inside I panicked. I was useless and out of my depth, nothing more than an observer when a hero was necessary. I watched the doctors and nurses work. They saw problems, made decisions and found the solution. People died anyway. Death is inevitable, why fight to live?
As Pascal held Mika in her arms, she begged, offering all she had to save her daughter from cholera. Her loving anguish represented everything that makes us human. In Haiti, I saw the value of life, the drops of humanity that justify our struggle.
I went through my period of disillusionment with medicine. I rebelled against the premed culture. I refused to do things because they’d look good on my resume. I forsook money and fame. I volunteered without logging hours, and I recycled the invitation from the pre-health fraternity. I stopped believing I could change the world. But then I watched the doctors do their job in a dilapidated hospital in Port-Au-Prince. It changed my mind.
I will practice medicine because I believe I can do more for my world with those skills than by any other means at my disposal. Like the ER nurses in Haiti attempting to avert tragedy, I will help those in need. When she looks into my eyes and pleads, I will have the skills that I lacked before. When I dream at night, I will know I gave her everything I could.