Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A pre-med student asks some probing questions

Here are some questions from Lionel, a pre-med student.

What is something you wish you had known before entering medical school?

It would have been nice to have known what changes were going to occur over the 40+ years since I graduated.

If you had the opportunity to choose a specialty all over again, would you do surgery again?

Yes. While I have often envied the controlled lifestyles and flexibility of radiologists and anesthesiologists, I don't think I could have stood the sitting in the dark all day (radiology) or utter boredom 95% of the time (anesthesia).

If not medicine, what other healthcare occupation would you consider to be more rewarding?

It depends on how you define rewarding. It seems to me that being CEO of a hospital is more rewarding financially these days. I have blogged about that. Is it more satisfying on any other level? I don't think so.

Is it possible to carry a healthy relationship where the significant other is not a medical student? Would it be more/less difficult in residency compared to medical school? [this is one I'm mostly interested in especially since you are a surgeon]

I am living proof that it is possible to have a healthy relationship with someone who is not a med student or physician. I met my wife, who is a nurse, when I was an intern. We were married when I was a third-year resident and still going strong at 39 years.

What implications have enduring medical school/residency had on your personality?

I was always kind of a pessimist, but med school and beyond amplified that trait a lot. As some people have written about lately, med school and residency can induce cynicism, and I'm afraid I am a classic example of that.

Does every single day of the year feel stressful or are there days where you feel in control and free to relax?

Since I retired late last year, the days are not particularly stressful right now. When I was an active surgeon, just about every day was very stressful. It took at least the first five days of every vacation to unwind, longer if I had gone away and left a sick patient to be managed by someone else. Here's a link to a post I wrote about "collateral damage," which is about how complications affect surgeons.

I have always dreamed that being a physician would help me feel more connected spiritually to god/universe by seeing all the unfortunate people and being able to lend compassion. However, does being under constant stress distract a physicians focus from that feeling and does it make you just want to finish the job and go home?

There were many days when I just wanted to finish the job and go home. I would like to think though that I was able to get past that and offer my patients the compassion and support they needed.

What do you like/dislike the most about your journey thus far?

I liked the challenge of figuring out what was wrong with a patient and having the ability to fix it. I liked the feeling of satisfaction after helping someone who was really sick get better. Today I got an email from a former patient who is 10 years postop from breast cancer surgery and disease free. Hearing that is hard to beat.

I took every complication, whether it was my fault or not, very personally. That can wear you down. I didn't like the empty feeling that I got when I operated on a patient and found something like incurable cancer. It was frustrating not to be able to do anything about it. It is very hard to look someone in the eye and tell him that the surgery did not solve the problem.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Is medical school worth it?

A woman writes
I came across your blog as I was looking for "doctors with good hours." Here's my situation:

I'm a female currently applying to medical school. Besides the question of "Can I get in?" (which is haunting me right now since my MCAT score of 31 is scaring me...all my friends have gotten interviews but I still haven't heard a thing), I'm wondering if it's even worth it to go to med school.
The biggest things concerning me:
1) The money. I have no idea how I'm going to pay that all back. If I get into my state med school, my estimated cost for tuition is $120,000. If I get into an out of state school, I'm looking at minimum $200,000 for tuition alone. I didn't calculate school fees, test fees, books, transportation, or car payment (I'll probably have to buy a car) into either my state or out of state costs.
2) The inflexibility. I have a boyfriend, we're planning on getting married, and he has his career too. It seems like the next four years + 3 years + ? = uncertainty since I don't know where I'm going to med school, where I'd match, etc, and where he'd work in that meantime.
3) The time. I'd also like a family. I don't know how fair it is to get through med school and residency and then do a part time physician thing. Doesn't seem very smart to me.
My question is, Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Am I just imagining trouble, or is medical life as a physician not worth it? My alternate career is to become a nurse--get my master's in about two years (through an accelerated program), work, and advance upward, maybe to a Nurse Practitioner level.

Thanks for writing.

You have nicely listed some of the major challenges facing most women who are considering medicine as a career.

You are the only person who can decide if medical school is worth it for you, but let's see if we can think it through.

My first instinct is to tell you to carefully reread your email as if it had been written by someone else. After doing so, what is your reaction? After you do that, resume reading my reply.

Not being a woman, I decided to outsource this. One of my daughters who is not a doctor, but has a master's degree in a science, is married and has two children said,

"It sounds like she doesn't really want to be a doctor..."

My wife, who is a nurse, agreed and said nursing is a career that allows you to do the things you wrote about.

Here are three posts I have written about this subject.

I will also ask my Twitter followers to read this and comment. I hope they do.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Is it possible to live a full life as a surgeon‏?

Neymar (not his real name) writes

Dear (Dr.) Skeptical Scalpel:

I'm writing this evening as a fourth year medical student wholly committed to pursuing a long and fulfilling life as a general surgeon. It's what I got into medicine for, and my love for the profession has only heightened in the arduous years of preparation and (nascent) training I've undergone thus far. I have had the fortune of living a very full life—travel, adventure, and a broad milieu of individuals have all shaped the form of the man I am now, and greatly influence the man—and surgeon—I hope to be in time.

Like many people in and outside of medicine, I reflect on what has been lost or what might have been lost along the path. At present, the balance sheet reflects a clear net gain. The opportunity cost, however, can be measured in the loss of time in wilderness, love and relationships and socializing that adds richness to my life. How do you advise young physicians pursuing such an ambitious and all encompassing professional course to maintain richness and fullness in their lives? How do you reconcile the personal forfeitures with the professional gains? And, most importantly, if one hopes to be a surgeon, are these questions worth considering or best left in the recesses of the mind?

Thanks for being a mentor to an entire generation of aspiring surgeons.

Thank you for writing and for the kind words.

The questions are definitely worth considering. I am not sure that my response will be applicable to your situation or anyone else's.

I chose surgery because it appealed to me more than any other specialty. Like most others of my era, I was young and had gone the traditional route—four years of college followed immediately by med school. I had experienced few adventures [in fact, none] and had not yet met my wife-to-be.

I never even considered what impact my choice would have on my personal life. The subject simply did not come up. I worked hard in medical school but had a great time. I think I had more fun in med school than I did in college.

My residency prepared me well for the rigors of a surgical career. I spent the first four years of my training taking call about half every other night and half every third night. As a chief resident, I was in call every night. Somehow I found the time to have a relationship and got married at the end of my third year.

My wife of 39 years is a saint. I have wonderful children and now grandchildren too.

I was fortunate in my career to have had the opportunity to supervise the training a number of surgeons who are helping people every day.

Although I'll never climb Everest, go an African safari, ski the Swiss Alps or do many other things that might be important to others, I've had an interesting and fulfilling life. Wilderness? Not so much. But love and relationships? I got 'em.

But it is different for the millennial generation. What I consider interesting and fulfilling might not be to you.

Surgery continues to evolve. I think it may be possible in the near future to have a career as a general surgeon and also have a manageable lifestyle. By the time you finish training, everyone will be in group or hospital-based practices. Or you could be an acute care surgeon with fixed hours.

You will have to decide what compromises to make such as deciding if leaving work at 5 pm is more important than staying late to operate on your patient who has a complication you created.

No one talks about this part—you will have to find partners you can trust with the lives of your patients. The roadside is littered with the corpses of group practices that didn't last because of productivity issues, attitudinal and/or philosophical differences among the surgeons.

For many surgeons, fulfillment is measured by the satisfaction of knowing you made a difference in someone's life.

Can you be a surgeon and have a rich and fulfilling life? You can, but it depends on how you define rich and fulfilling.

If you haven't read this post, you should.