The Truth About Being A Doctor

One of the first things people will ask you in any social circumstance – whether you meet for the first time (online or in real life), your accidental seat buddy aboard a long-distance flight, your potential in-laws, your hairdresser – literally almost anyone you encounter – is WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING? Obviously, that is one of THE most important things about you; something that characterizes you; something that yes, LABELS you – because God knows, the human race just LOVES to label!

What do you do for a living sign

People’s reactions will differ depending on their own professions and social status, but also in respect to WHAT IT MEANS TO THEM. Seriously, your hairdresser couldn’t care less about what you do for a living as long as you can pay for your haircut; and the person beside you on the plane is probably just interested in a “good” and interesting conversation with great stories to pass the time, so they will be hoping you are a cop rather than a plumber. But your girfriend’s or boyfriend’s parents? To them it will really matter what you do because after all, you might be ending up at the altar with their kid and become a parent to their future grandkids.

At any rate, you can be damn sure and certain that most people will judge you by many standards – your clothes, your looks, your hair, your car etc – but one of the things that will really determine your “rank” on the social ladder is your job.

When you think about it – how sad is that really? How full of preconceived notions are we, how prejudiced, how full of bullshit that ANY ONE OF US would rather see our kid date a lawyer than a construction worker, a nurse rather than a stripper –  NO MATTER how decent the guy/girl is? Frankly, it sucks. We have learned and been taught that social rank means more than being a good, kind, reliable, decent human being.

I will tell you, though, that it’s not funny being on the other side either. So let me tell you a bit about that. As you will know if you are a regular on my site – I am a doctor. A surgeon, to be exact. Being a doctor will always – and I do mean always – get you a proper social ranking. People may not know ANYTHING about you – you could be a serial killer or a Republican 😉 – but as soon as you say the magic words “I am a doctor” they will give you the look. What look? The look of approval and respect. The “oh wow, oh really, good for you!” look. Then, inevitably, the next question: what kind of a doctor are you? That one is tricky. No one is really crazy about sitting beside a pathologist who handles dead bodies or an infectiologist who deals with worms and germs. But you can never, ever go wrong with “I am a surgeon”. And up the ladder you climb until you can actually ring the golden bell right at the top. Don’t get me wrong – I love that being a surgeon opens doors for me. Just as much as I hate it when people oohh and ahhhh because I am a surgeon if thats the only goddamn thing they know about me.Trust me I am a surgeon

I will be honest with you people. I have no earthly clue what kind of superhero demigod image people have in their heads or whether they actually think of all the years of school and university and residency you had to put in to actually become what you are – and therefore they are in awe. What I do know, though, is that most everyone I know (unless they work in the medical field themselves or know someone really well who does) has a completely wrong picture in their heads of what it is like to be a doctor. To be a surgeon.

Let me get something off my chest first before I blow your minds and destroy your fantasies 😉 – I love being a doctor. I love to help people, I crave solving the puzzles of disease and diagnosis, it’s awesome to be “in the zone”, at the table, all sterile, with your thoughts completely focused, holding out hand saying “knife” or “ten blade” or “scalpel” and actually cutting into human flesh, completely trusting your own abilities to cut, help and heal. And it is the absolute best feeling in the world when you know you have helped make a life better or you have even saved a life. It doesn’t get much better than that, folks. But those moments? Are rare. A surgeon’s, a doctor’s life isn’t all glory; its more all guts.

Here is the truth: being a surgeon means that more often than not you are too tired or too exhausted to actually enjoy being a surgeon. You go to school busting your ass to get good grades, excellent grades, so that you can go to medical school. Medical school will cost you an arm and a leg no matter where you are in the world; maybe you have rich parents or you have a scholarship or maybe you work 5, 6, 7 different jobs at the same time to be able to put yourself through school like I did. Don’t get me wrong – I loved med school. I loved hanging out with my study budies, I loved to learn about the human body, I loved to understand a little more every day how it all works; but those were also years in which I hardly slept, worked many nights, studied until I broke down in tears from exhaustion. Then finally, finally you are a doctor. OMG I will never in my life forget the feeling after my last exam when my professors came out after discussing my performance and they all shook my hand saying “congratulations, DOCTOR.” I felt on top of the world! A month later I was in my surgical internship – where 36 hours on, 12 hours off wasn’t the exception but the rule; you learned to live, breathe and be “the hospital”. And all of a sudden there is no more time or stamina for anything but this: becoming a surgeon. Internship and residency are tough. Really tough. You are in constant competition with your peers to get your surgeries; you work long hours; you are on your feet all day, all night; everyday you end up with different bodily fluids on you; you get thrown up on, bled on, peed on, pooped on. You learn to eat anything remotely edible running from the ER to the OR; you get introduced to the fact that as a doctor you may not feel disgusted; you may not think something or someone is too gross to touch.

I remember being on nightshift as a 3rd year resident when the ambulance brought in a homeless man, unconscious but breathing, and once he was transferred to an ER cot I could see something strange moving under his pant leg. I cut it open and looked at what must have been thousands of maggots happily feeding on his rotten flesh. One nurse screamed, another passed out – the surgical resident doesn’t have that luxury. You get to remove all one thousand and one maggot just so you can see whats hiding under them……and treat it. Seriously, though. I have lost lives, I have saved them. I have doubted myself, I have felt like I own the world. Being a doctor is about helping others and yet it is one of the most anti-social professions that you could choose. You will miss family reunions, birthdays, parties – because you are ON CALL. You will bail out on social engagements, dinners, movies, ball games because you are too freaking tired after the so many-eth night shift in a row. In your “free” time you can only think of one thing you really, really want to do: sleep. You get cranky and pale and relationships go down the drain a mile a minute. And then, miraculously, residency is over and …. things will get better 😉

‘Whew! Five surgeries in one day! Well, let’s try to make this last one end on a happy note!’

Better, but nothing like the “glory” most people connect you with. Having peoples’ lives in your hands day in day out never gets to be routine and you are always under pressure. Of course, you also always feel guilty toward your spouse, your kids, your friends because you never have enough time, because you miss soccer games and rehearsals and because when you are home, more often than not you are tired and cranky.

Being a doctor is a calling. It is not a “dream job”. And when you eventually get to a point where you earn a decent salary (and have paid off your student loans!) you actually do deserve every single cent.

The truth about being a doctor? It is one of the most gratifying professions that one can choose AND it is tied to a hell of a lot of sacrifices that you and the ones closest to you will have to make along the way. Is it worth it? In moments when I come out of the OR after many hours on my feet without peeing or drinking or eating or do so much as scratch my itchy nose but knowing I saved a life? Oh yeah, its worth it. Or when my son proudly proclaims to everyone waiting at the ER when he needed his arm get checked out after a trampoline fall: MY mom cuts people open! Yes, its worth it. And then, at moments when I am not the best spouse or mother or friend that I could be just because I am too tired to move my ass, no, its not worth it.  Would I choose to become a doctor again if I had that choice again? Absolutely. Because at the end of the day when someone asks me: So, what do YOU do for a living? And I can answer: I am a doctor – I feel proud. And it feels right.

Finally, I would love to hear about your professions – what people think of them, how they react and what the pro’s and con’s are! Please engage in comments below. Thanks!

Deb