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Medical Student Perspective: Something Amazing: A Boy Falling Out of the Sky

“Is this still true?” I wondered, having stumbled upon my medical school application essay while searching my shelf for an anatomy book. What I had written, three years ago at this point, was undoubtedly similar to what most applicants had written: that I think science is interesting, and I want to help people in my career. That, I’ve been told, is the right reason to start down the medical path. I meant it, back then, and I still believe it now. I worked for a few years before beginning medical school, in the health policy department at my college. I loved my work, and after a few years of doing it I left believing that good health policy is important to our lives. That is, I believed my work truly helped people. What a rewarding feeling!

This desire to help and be of use is the exact opposite of the indifference reflected in Auden’s famous poem, Musee des Beaux Arts. The poem is about the myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and so fell down to earth. Various people see Icarus fall, and yet they all go on with their lives as if nothing had happened. They are indifferent to his suffering. Although all the characters have seen “Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,” Auden laments that they all carry on with their lives instead of helping Icarus. The last line of the poem is a heartbreaking surrender to indifference: one of the onlookers simply “Had somewhere to get to, and sailed calmly on.”

When I read this poem in college, I promised myself that my career and my life would be different from having somewhere to get to and sailing calmly on. I promised myself that I would never sail calmly on, that I would always stop and give help to the sick and others in need. So, I chose to go to medical school.

I felt confident of my career choice: a mix of clinical medicine and health policy work. This was the golden combination, I thought. Some hands-on time with individual patients, and some time to think about the entire population, to “treat the patients I wouldn’t ever get to see in my office,” a phrase one of my mentors had said to me. I had a strong background in health policy work, and I had started my first year at a very good medical school. I could do this!

Why, then, do I know in my heart that the promises I made in that idealistic and passionate essay: to give all of my energy and all of myself to this career, are promises I simply cannot keep? I still have the same career plans. I still believe all those things I wrote. I still believe that good medicine and good health policy truly help people. When a surgeon I was shadowing last month told me I had to “decide if all the crap I wrote in my admissions essay was true, or if I just wanted a nice salary and a country club,” I nearly shouted back at him: “Of course it was true!” I have no doubts that a medical career is helpful and useful to others, and that excites me as much as it ever has. Maybe it even excites me more, now that I have two years of medical knowledge folded into my brain and feel that I am almost to the point of actually being of use.

Still, I recognize that I cannot in good faith commit my entire self to medicine. I want to be the best doctor possible, but I also need to be a good son, an annoying younger brother, and a supportive friend. The other parts of my life: my family, my friends, my hobbies, are incredibly important to me, and I am not willing to sacrifice them. I know that I will only be successful at work if I have the time and energy for a fulfilling personal life. Can I find time for everything?

Even just since I began medical school, my personal life has changed greatly. My siblings, and many of my close friends, have gotten married, and some have children. My grandfather, who taught me how to shoot a basketball, swing a baseball bat, and built a tree house with me (still an eye-sore to my father), passed away. My parents retired, moved into a fixer-upper on the beach, and keep a place at the dining table set for my sisters and me, for whenever we might have time to visit them. I turned 25 a few days ago. My sisters emailed me an essay about turning 25, about thinking seriously about the adult you want to become, about faith, forming meaningful friendships, and choosing romantic partners. Of course, this was already on my mind. The transition from college life to adulthood was challenging, for sure, but I felt happy with my work and my relationships. Still, it was valuable to sit back and reflect on how important these parts of my life are, and how fortunate I am to have a close group of supportive friends and a loving family. You can choose your friends, whether to stay close to your family, to be solitary or social, and I choose the most social life I can have. I choose to call my parents and my sisters almost daily, to make time between classes and studying and meetings to have lunch with my friends, to catch my team playing on Saturdays, if only for one half, to play Frisbee with my friends a few times a week, even in the bitterly cold winter.

It would be so easy to tell myself that life will wait for me, and happen only after I finish school. But it’s a fallacy to think that way. This career will last the rest of my life. Medicine is truly a lifelong mission, a marathon run right alongside everything else in life. It doesn’t just require a short burst of intense energy, a tough year or two during which you can gently shift your family and friends and hobbies to the side, to be returned to soon. It demands a lifetime of devotion.

I can’t promise all of my energy to my work - not for a lifetime. I believe as much as I ever did that my career will be of great use. That belief has not wavered. Not one bit. But my responsibility to my career is only one of many in my life. It will have to compete with weekend trips to visit my parents, and video calls to my sisters – I am going to make sure my nieces and nephews know exactly who their uncle is, even if I only get to see them once or twice each year. And hopefully, my career will one day have to compete with my own children begging me to rush home, to make it to their soccer game, with my loving wife beckoning me to a date night. Maybe turning 25 helped me realize how important my personal life is to me, and these questions naturally follow: Can I have the necessary expertise and passion for my career when I'm not willing to put my entire self into it? What if I want to reserve a big chunk of myself for other things? Will that make me some mediocre doc who rushes through work and is concerned only with making money and being out of the office by 5pm?

I am so excited about the work I am training for in medical school. The dilemma is, I care about other parts of my life, too. I see this in my classmates and my instructors. I know they, too, worry about the balance in their lives. I see them rushing into meetings hanging up from a call with a child. I see them studying furiously on an airplane so they can put the books away during their friend’s wedding. I see them talking calmly to a patient who keeps asking the same question again and again late on a Friday afternoon, then changing into sneakers and bolting down the hallway, racing to pick up a child from basketball practice. I see them giving all of themselves they can to their work, and undoubtedly wishing they had more to give. Have they struck the right balance? Are they happy? Or, are they tired at home, and dispassionate at work?

I dearly hope that I am never indifferent to a patient. I hope I never speed through an appointment with a patient because I need to rush home. I hope I never forget that humanity and compassion are my most important tools. I will have countless places to get to, no doubt, like all the people watching Icarus fall from the sky. But I hope, I hope, I hope, that I never sail calmly on. I chose a career in medicine because it is the opposite of sailing calmly on, the opposite of indifference to human suffering, or should be. May I live up to that challenge.

Clay Bavinger, B.A.
University of Michigan Medical School
Class of 2015
Email: claybavinger@gmail.com

Clay Bavinger

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