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"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
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
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
December/January Issue of IMpact
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