Best doctor...or best dad?

April 21, 2006

This dedicated physician has made his choice. Read how he's solved a common medical dilemma.

I had just closed the exam room door behind me and started to greet my young patient and his mother, when I heard my name in a muffled page. In our clinic, overhead pages sound not unlike the voice of the teacher in the old Peanuts cartoon specials: "Wha wha wha whaaaa wha, Dr. Switzer, wha wha whaaaa."

Slightly embarrassed, I excused myself and picked up the phone in the hallway. "Hello, this is Dave Switzer."

"Well, that's a little formal, don't you think?" It was my wife, Tina.

"We're fine," she said. "Claire just had something she really wanted to tell you."

This was my first urgent call from Claire, who was then 2 years old. What could it be?

Allow me to digress. I have one of the most important jobs in the whole world. The responsibility is tremendous, and the opportunity to send rippling effects into society for years to come is daunting. I can't afford to miss one detail that today may seem insignificant but later may be reassessed as critical. On the other hand, the rewards are boundless and priceless. I am, of course, talking about being a parent.

Sure, my position as a family doctor is one of honor, privilege, and tremendous responsibility, too. I care a great deal for my patients, and each encounter-even if it's frustrating-still leaves me with a sense of awe and wonder that the patient has chosen me, this regular guy with average smarts, as a confidant and healer.

I think the reason my patients choose to stay with me is because they recognize how much I care about them. But you know what? I care about my little girls-Jennifer, Claire, and Rebecca-too. I want to be a good doctor. But I also want to be a good father. And although those two desires may seem to conflict, the skills I need for one reinforce the skills I need for the other.

Being a good father takes time. I'm not nearly smart enough to figure it out in five minutes a day. Being a good father means playing with Fisher-Price "Little People" and Disney "Princesses," dressing up to watch dining room performances of The Nutcracker, and getting my bald head scrubbed to a shine as I lean over the side of the tub at bath time. It means taking trips to the imaginary beauty shop in the girls' room, administering "boo boo medicine," enforcing limits, reading bedtime stories, occasionally putting on a feather boa, playing Candyland and Chutes and Ladders-and lots and lots of hugs and kisses. It also means taking each girl out to lunch alone every now and then, so that she knows that I recognize her as an individual, not just one of the pack.

Only 24 hours in a day

All that takes time. If there's a more efficient, cost-effective way to be a good dad, I haven't figured out what it is. But being a good doctor takes time, too, and therein lies my dilemma. I want to be a good father, but I can't be the world's best doctor, or even the best doctor in town, unless I neglect my family.

There are only so many hours in the day. If I wanted to be the best doctor in town, I'd have to devote most all of them to my work-reading journals and medical textbooks in every spare moment, taking courses, and attending conferences hither and yon. I'd have to be accessible to my patients 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Could I do all those things? Yes. Am I going to? Not by a long shot. So I've set my standards a little lower. I've decided that being a plain old good doctor who cares about his patients could satisfy me, and hopefully would satisfy my patients in return.