One of the more frequently asked questions I face is "Why did you become a doctor?"
Trust me, that's a question I have asked myself on more than one occasion. In fact, I think the last time I asked myself that question, it was 4 a.m. and the obnoxious, drunk guy had just finished puking on my new running shoes. Why exactly did I become a doctor? It certainly wasn't so the kind people at Dick's Sporting Goods would know me on a first name basis.
I come from a large family, both immediate and extended. I am the fifth of seven kids, three of us boys. On my father's side, every male is or was involved in the forestry industry. This includes my father, three paternal uncles, my two brothers, and multiple cousins. Since I was a young boy, around age five, I have strong memories of waking up before the morning darkness dissipated, jumping with my father and brothers into one of the company work trucks, and heading out into the pristine Pennsylvania woods. It was expected that I, like my brothers and cousins, would someday pursue a college education in forestry and then continue in our family's international business.
I always knew, though, that I was made from a different cloth. My paternal grandmother, our family matriarch, encouraged me to pursue my dreams, even if those dreams did not include the forestry business. She knew I had a different calling and I loved her for her easy acceptance of this. As much as I enjoyed the beautiful woods, the fresh air, and hard work that came with my family's business, I needed something different.
So, until then, during summer vacations and on Saturdays during the school year, I could be found in the woods carrying a Stihl chainsaw or steering a John Deere skidder loaded with freshly cut logs down a narrow path to an accessible landing where logging trucks would pick them up. Smiling. And ducking behind the occasional tree, convinced that I had seen Bigfoot yet again.
When, then, did I discover my illuminated path toward medicine?
I'd like to say I had one defining moment where it just popped with me, that I would be a doctor, but that wasn't the case. During my tenth grade year in high school, however, multiple happenings occurred in my life that exposed me to medicine and reinforced my belief that I would be a doctor someday. That year, I lost both of my grandfathers to medical illnesses, and I was a firsthand witness to their struggles. I also witnessed my father's leg, crushed in a freak logging accident, be saved by incredible surgeons who refused to look at amputation as an option.
Personally, before these deaths and my father's injury, I also sustained an injury that reinforced my pursuit of medicine.
Chainsaw lacerations were very common in the forestry business, at least before protective chaps gained widespread use. This injury did not spare me and, as a result, I had my first and only ER experience as a patient when I needed a laceration repair.
Right after lunch on that death-defying summer day, I was trimming some obstructing tree branches to reach a felled log. Suddenly, my saw kicked back and cut into my thigh just above my left knee. At first, I thought the pain was just another tree limb poking at my leg. When I looked down and saw my cut denim pant leg outlined with a circle of red blood, though, I knew that I had just been initiated into the Lacerations Are Us Forestry Club.
Trying not to panic and fighting off the dizzying angst of near-death that accompanies a two-inch superficial laceration, I quickly ran out of the woods and jumped onto the skidder, driving it without abandon (yes, 10 mph on a rocky trail) to find Louie, one of the crew guys. Louie, not known for his strong work ethic, was only too happy to drive me to the local hospital's ER. I still don't know to this day how he could eat his bologna sandwich (with ketchup) and listen to Paul Harvey while I sat beside him in the pickup truck, hemorrhaging. And now, page two. The kid sitting beside you in the truck is bleeding to death, Louie. Put the bologna sandwich down and drive faster.
By the time we arrived at the ER, the bleeding had slowed considerably and thoughts of my family catering to my every whim after such a tragic accident waned. As Louie called my Dad from the waiting room, I was placed in an ER room, given a gown to change into, and waited for my Dad's arrival. When he arrived, he was, of course, sympathetic. His face was a hard read, though, bordering between pride for my initiation and disappointment that it wasn't worse.
What happened next for me was nothing short of a miracle. Within minutes of Dad's arrival, the doctor walked in and repaired my laceration. He was kind. He was normal. He was compassionate. And he was thoughtful enough to ask me if I wanted to watch him repair my cut. Absolutely, I said. He propped a pillow behind my back and lifted my cot upright to 90 degrees.
With precision, the doctor explained every step of my laceration repair, from numbing the wound edges with lidocaine to how he would close the laceration in two layers--the buried, dissolvable stitches that would hold my muscle together followed by the external sutures that would closely approximate my skin. Fifteen stitches later, he was done. The nurse, lacking any dramatic flare, applied a big, bulky dressing and antibiotic ointment and I was discharged to home.
Needless to say, I had seen the light. I had experienced medicine. I had been snatched from the jaws of death by the brilliance of medicine (and fifteen measly stitches). From this experience to how the rest of that year played out, I had no doubts about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Is that enough to explain why I went into medicine? I hope so, although at 4 a.m. with that fresh puke all over me, I sometimes wish my personal revelations to pursue a career in medicine held more flare.
So, if you are in my ER in the middle of the night and I smell like bile, please do me a big favor and ignore the stink. And if you see me rubbing my scar above my left knee, don't pay me any attention. I'm just remembering why I went into medicine. Again.
As always, thanks for reading. I hope everyone is having a great holidays. Thanks for all the kind holiday wishes. Next post will be Wednesday, December 30. Until then...