I have a confession to make. Four years ago, I was calling you the “Pod People,” because I felt so traumatized by the behavior of other doctors. When I quit practicing medicine around that time, I wanted to have nothing to do with doctors. I called myself a “recovering physician” and pretty much avoided doctors like the plague. I came to think of you as a bunch of arrogant, mean-spirited, grumpy, soulless people bent on keeping me in a box and clipping my wings.
But I have mellowed out. After two years of full-time writing and painting, I learned that you can quit your job, but you don’t quit your calling. I am now practicing medicine, but on my terms, in a way that feels completely authentic to who I am. The post-traumatic stress of my medical training is healing, and my heart is cracked wide open. Which puts me in a good place to write this love letter. So forgive me for calling you the “Pod People,” and know that I am on your side. Really.
Why I Love You
Now that I’m not so tired, I realize how much I truly love you. I love you for making the sacrifices you’ve made, for putting the needs of others before the needs of yourself, for dropping everything to come running when someone cries for help. I love you for skipping keg parties to study for organic chemistry, for enduring sleepless nights and countless indignities in the name of learning, for tolerating angry teachers and stressed out colleagues. I love you for surviving law suits with your head held high, for not letting the insurance turkeys get your down, for dealing with complications that occurred on your watch and never forgetting that you did the best you could and that nobody is perfect. Most of all, I love you for following your passion, for clinging to the authentic core of who you are deep within, for serving your life purpose and doing it with integrity and courage.
I know that we all went to medical school for the right reasons. We felt called to serve, usually from a very young age. After I quit my job, I convinced myself that going to medical school had been a mistake, that the only reason I did it was because Dad was a doctor, and I wasn’t brave enough to go to art school. But then I took a workshop with Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, and she invited us to think back to the first time we realized that the life of another living thing mattered. It could be an animal, a person — a bug, even.
She asked us to raise our hands based on how old we were. Older than 25? 20-25?
15-20? 10-15? Less than 10? As you can imagine, almost everybody in the room raised their hands when she said “Less than 10,” myself included.
I was seven. A chimney sweep was cleaning our chimney and found a nest of baby squirrels without a mother. I begged my parents to take me to the veterinarian so I could learn how to be the mommy these squirrels didn’t have. I learned to feed them dog’s milk with an eye dropper and wipe their little genitals so they would pee. I set my alarm to get up at night and feed them, and I carried them with me to school in a backpack. Over the next 15 years, I went on to raise about 20 squirrels. They called me the squirrel girl, and I loved those squirrels like a mother.
I cried when I realized this. Going to medical school had nothing to do with my father. It just gave me the tools to do what I had been doing since I was seven, tending the sick, wounded, and vulnerable.
Rachel says this trait is unique to us doctors. She says she tried doing this same thing in front of a group of law students, but when she asked them how old they were when they realized that the life of another living being mattered, nobody raised their hands — ever. Standing right next to her was the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, who leaned over and whispered in her ear, “Rachel, try justice.” And Rachel posed the question, “How old were you when you discovered that the world was unjust?” The lawyers had the same breakdown we did. They too were called young, but in a different way than we are.
Chances are that, like me, you were born a doctor. You didn’t have the white coat or the stethoscope or the pharmacology training, but you had what matters most — the desire to help others heal. This is a gift. We are lucky. Our lives have great purpose. We do important work in the world. We matter.
It’s easy to lose sight of this when you feel bogged down with CPT codes, falling reimbursement rates, electronic medical records, rising malpractice rates, subpoenas and blaring pagers. It’s easy to question why you ever went to medical school in the first place. It’s easy to fantasize about quitting, if only you could afford to pay the $120,000 malpractice tail and the $200,000 med school debt that makes you an indentured servant. It’s tempting to close your heart and build up an iron wall to protect you from the depth of the feeling that lies beneath our work. We consider donning the white coat and using it as armor to protect our soft underbellies. We let it become our identity, forgetting that we have rich nuggets of truth within us that truly define us. We lose touch with the idealistic kid who took the MCAT ages ago. We wind up hardened.
I SEE You
I know better. I can see beneath the mask you wear, the one you put on when you scrub into the operating room or show up at the office, the one you often forget to take off when you go back home and start barking orders at your husband like he’s a scrub tech in your OR.
I see the fear that grips you when you think about who you might be if you took the white coat off and let your whole self show up at the hospital. I see how your marriage suffers when you can’t leave work at work. I see how your kids cry when they are sick and you must go tend other women’s children. I see the bitterness that threatens to destroy you.
But I can also see the brilliance within you, the bright sparkly light that shines like a lighthouse, beckoning you back to who you really are underneath the white coat. I see your heart, exposed and vulnerable beneath its ribcage armor, longing to break open and love fully. I see the fantasies you’ve let slide, the secret longings you’ve never spoken, the guilt you feel when you think about cheating on your calling to chase butterflies.
I see this in you because I see it in me. In this place, you and I share a connection, a thread that binds us together and sutures us into a quilt that blankets the whole world with light.
And So I Bless You
You, my friend, are a blessing. The world is so lucky you are in it. And I love you, not because you’re a doctor, but for being exactly who you are. Take this knowing and spread it into the world. Take it into the hospitals and clinics, the ER’s and OR’s and doctors’ lounges. Take it into your homes and gyms and art studios. Share it with your churches, your schools, your grocery stores.
What if we can doctor not just bodies but souls? What if we can bring the healing back to the heart of what we do? What if we can find meaning in medicine? What if we can heal our broken profession from the inside out, if we can cast the fracture between us and our patients? What if we could bring our whole selves to everything we do in life? What if we can heal ourselves?