An open letter to my son, who is a pre-med student

February 25, 2011

The author's letter doesn't understate that life in medicine can be difficult.

Dear Daniel,

To borrow a line from the Beatles, "I read the news today, oh boy...and though the news was rather sad. Well, I just had to laugh." There it was, another article detailing that physicians experience a higher prevalence of depression, burnout, suicidal ideation and a lower quality of life than age-matched members of the general population.

Any rational person might ask who wants to put up with all this? The years of study? Delayed gratification? Living at poverty level for so long? Putting marriage and relationships at risk while you pursue the dream of medicine? And then after you have tackled all of the above issues, you come out ill-prepared to fight new foes: mastering the ICD-9, soon to be ICD-10, codes, insurance companies, paperwork, running a business. It's downright daunting.

So why do I stick with it? Well, simply put, it's about the best darned gig around, that's why. In the face of doctor burnout, isolation and the stresses of running an office, there is nothing to rival the satisfaction of being a doctor. I may come home weary and burdened from seeing so many hurting people, but an inner peace suffuses me, often the most intensely on my roughest days. It comes from being able to stand back and reflect on my day, resting in the calm assurance that I am indeed doing some good out there, one patient at a time.

Where do I begin? Well, for starters, there's Frankie, a strapping 7-year-old who used to burst into tears every time I walked into the room when he was a toddler. Today, he high-fives me and calls me the best doctor in the world. His baby sister just had a febrile seizure and he's confident that I'll take good care of her. There's Gert. At 104, she's my oldest patient. With the twinkle in her eye and that smile of hers, she always lifts my spirits. Mr. Connors just had a stroke. At 51, this wasn't supposed to happen, but it did. Even though he's well-connected with his neurologist, he leans on me to help him navigate the maze of health challenges that have hit him like a freight train.

Time and again, I step into the room and quietly close the door. After some friendly banter about important matters such as this year's lousy tomato crop, good fishing holes, bicycle riding, and how my beloved Washington State Cougars are doing (usually not very well), I segue into the reason for the visit.