What do I want to be when I grow up?

It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves, or been asked by others, at some point. Kids attempt to answer it by using their imaginations, ‘playing pretend’ and taking on various personas (complete with elaborate costumes and props).

I think kids often imitate the people whom they admire or perceive as heroes: police officers, firefighters, veterinarians, detectives, teachers, doctors, etc. There are plenty of other (highly entertaining) examples (Kid President, anyone?), but you get the idea. Children play games as a way to understand complex adult roles, and they pick up on observable social and cultural cues from the people, places, and things around them.

The same was true of my own childhood. By the time I was six years old I had two younger siblings, so my go-to ‘play pretend’ careers were those in which I felt validated when I received positive attention from my parents and other adults. I loved pretending to be a veterinarian and caring for (or at least attempting to care for) my dog and cat. I was drawn to the notion of becoming a vet because, at my level of understanding, I could appreciate that the men and women in this field were intelligent, caring, and they were vitally important in my world, ensuring that my pets were healthy, happy, and able to withstand the (entirely loving) chokehold hugs their overzealous kid-owners might bestow. So, my response to ‘What do you want to be?’ was an obvious one: a veterinarian. I loved animals, and I was also pretty good at bandaging injuries, which may or may not have been motivated by attempts to avoid getting in trouble if one of my little sisters got injured during a game of hide-and-seek.

Throughout high school I became more interested in the medical field, and as I began college I anticipated this was likely the start of what would be an eight-year journey to become a doctor. But what I didn’t know was that I was dedicating my time, money, and mind to pursuing a career in more than just science and medicine.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the definition for ‘doctor’ in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. The entry is succinct and straightfoward:

doctor: noun | doc·tor | ˈdäk-tər
a person who is skilled in the science of medicine : a person who is trained and licensed to treat sick and injured people.

That’s the simplified definition. Scrolling down, there are multiple entries, separated by numbers to distinguish one from another: “an eminent theologian…a sound explorer of doctrine”, “a learned or authoritative teacher”, “a person skilled or specializing in healing arts”, “a person who restores, repairs, or fine-tunes things”.

I think a doctor is all these things, and the concept of who is a doctor and what they do is a dynamic one, dependent upon individual perspective–whether in the eyes of patients, friends and family, colleagues, and so on.

So here is my perspective about what it means to be a doctor:

Doctors are teachers. Their patients are their students; doctors teach them about the design of the human body, the normal and the abnormal. No one doctor’s teaching style is the same, just as a patient’s manner of learning differs between individuals. Patients come from all sorts of backgrounds and levels of education, so flexibility is key.

Doctors are students. The pursuit of education lasts indefinitely, even in the absence of a formal institution or classroom setting. The prospect of encountering new challenges and perpetually seeking to improve myself is what makes the medical field exciting.  paradigm of thought, reinforce an already accepted scientific belief, or turn knowledge on its head and render it obsolete. We read and study, we take tests (a lot of tests), and we keep our certifications current. Our superiors and our peers are our professors. We can learn from textbooks and journals, or from personal experiences in hospital wards and clinics. We observe methods of doctor-patient communication and surgical techniques, and we commit them to memory.

Doctors are counselors, personal trainers, mechanics. Chest pain? Arthritic flare-ups? Cardiologists and rheumatologists might as well be firefighters, diagnosing and battling pathophysiologic blazes within the human body. Doctors have to be good detectives, too, in the process of developing a differential diagnosis and identifying the correct one before tailoring management strategies to an individual patient.

Doctors are artists and historians. They are immersed in the beauty and complexity of the arts just as much as they are in science. The human body is a glorious canvas requiring the critical eye of a clinician who discerns connections and truth beyond the surface. Surgeons are conductors of great orchestras comprised of steady hands and pristine instruments. My mom often reminds me, “It’s called the art of medicine for a reason”.

There’s not always a solution, or if there is, it may not offer a rewarding sense of closure, because medicine is full of variables: the uniqueness of the patient and their circumstances, location, timing, the doctor’s own strengths and limitations. It’s unrealistic to expect one surgeon to precisely replicate a skill of another surgeon. Sometimes there’s no guarantee medicine will prevail–the poignancy of human suffering is art, too, in its own way, and though not always comforting, it makes us better for having experienced it. We learn from our shortcomings as much as we do our victories.

My point is that there’s no clear-cut, detailed job description of a doctor; there are, in fact, many facets to the profession. Some of these roles are pronounced than others depending on the situation, and perhaps on the physician themselves, but I believe doctors are in the unique position of fulfilling the roles of more than one job throughout their lives, or even in the span of a single office visit. Ours is a versatile profession, and at times, it is this versatility that contributes to doctors feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or disillusioned with the decision to enter the medical field in the first place.

The phenomenon of burnout can happen suddenly in a moment of immense stress, or it can eat away at a person’s stamina gradually until there’s little memory of why they chose this profession in the first place. I’ve seen kids demonstrate unshakable resilience when they set their hearts and minds to protecting something in which they believe, and I think we could use a little more child-like spirit when facing obstacles in our adult lives. Maybe we just need a moment to reflect and recall our answers–our dreams, passions, and goals–the last time we considered, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”


Original article edited by Erica Romano on 08/26/2017.