Mine was not the typical path to medical school. In my family, we weren't raised so much as allowed to grow up. What pressure there was, was to be creative. My mother was an artist who taught school to make ends (approximately) meet, and I always got more praise for my artistic endeavors than my good grades. (My father was a violinist who worked as a statistician to make ends meet, but he died in a motorcycle crash when I was five.) I didn't do more science classes than absolutely required. Instead I took English, French, German, creative writing, art, music ... and I decided to major in creative writing in college.
Yet all along I was fascinated by medical subjects. Really fascinated. Weirdly fascinated. I guess it started after I had a nervous breakdown at the age of fourteen following an ugly period involving a sadistic live-in boyfriend of my mother's. I developed major depression accompanied by panic attacks and anxiety, and the main focus of my anxiety was that I was dying of some dread disease. (I'm not sure why this made me so anxious, since I also wished that I would die.) It's a good thing the internet wasn't around yet, because I could have whipped myself into a nonstop frenzy looking at all the paranoid sites that exist today. What I did do was read every medical article I could find in every magazine and newspaper I could get my hands on. The nervous breakdown finally ran its course (for the time being) and the evil boyfriend left (for good), but my medical article addiction remained.
After college I got a nearly free ride to get an MFA in creative writing. It was there that I first began to realize that the creative life might not be the one for me. Because while I loved writing a really good story, I only managed to produce something I considered to be really good once or twice a year. The rest was crap. I also got fed up with the workshops. After a while I just didn't feel like commenting on yet another semi-autobiographical story of awakening. (I did make my best friend in my MFA program, and her approach to writing -- as hard work she could do for hours, days, weeks, months, years on end without much return -- made me realize that mine was dilettantish. She did ultimately become a published novelist, richly deserved.)
I went to work as an editor of technical writing, while trying to keep writing fiction on my time off. I really liked my job, but the part I most enjoyed about it was getting a project that I could dig into and know that I could finish. I began to realize that I have a hard time with delayed gratification when it comes to work. I like to know that I've done something useful every day. Creative writing is far from that kind of work. You can measure the number of words you write each day, but the chance of them being useful in some way is dauntingly tiny. Not that fiction isn't useful -- it has enlightened, encouraged, emboldened, and educated me in many ways over the years -- but I had no faith that most of what I produced would be of use. Partly because the chances of being published are slim, but also because as I said before, most of what I put out seemed like crap.
I joked from time to time that I had missed my true calling, because medicine is not a particulary good hobby. But I never seriously considered going to medical school. It seemed absurd. It was absurd. To do it, I'd have to figure out a way to do all the premed requirements; then take the MCATs; then apply to med school; then if I got in, spend four years in med school followed by at least three years of residency and then possibly fellowship. I was terrified of the idea of spending the next ten years of my life on something so grueling. I'd never been someone who could skimp on sleep; how on earth could I survive being on call? And wasn't I too old?
When I was 27, some messy painful stuff happened having to do with a man, and I found myself feeling depressed again. One day I started wondering, How did I get here? This is not my beautiful life. So I asked myself, All right, where is my beautiful life? And I thought, I wish I'd gone to medical school. What about all the objections above? Well, I thought, so it's ten years, but it's not ten years of prison. It's ten years of living, just doing something different and harder. And if I wait any longer, I'll just be older. Around the same time I inherited some money -- not a ton, but enough to let me quit my job and take premed classes for a year. Which I did.
It was pretty terrifying at first. I didn't do a prepackaged postbac year -- too expensive; I went to a state school as a special student and waitlisted myself on all the premed courses I needed. My schedule was like a complicated jigsaw puzzle. And I was rusty. I got a 39 on my first physics quiz, which made me hyperventilate. But taking all the premed courses together was actually very efficient; once I figured out how to study for one, the methods applied to all of them. And I did figure it out. Eventually I totally kicked ass on every subject.
When I interviewed at medical schools, I was worried that they'd be puzzled by me and the path I'd taken to get there. As it turned out, they loved me -- they were bored of seeing the cookie-cutter 21-year-old premeds who had never gotten a chance to do anything interesting in their lives because their parents had pushed them into medicine. And when I started med school I found that I had a real advantage over those kids. I'd already spent a summer bumming around Europe -- three summers, in fact. I'd already had my fill of waiting tables and writing fiction and hanging out and generally living the slacker life. It didn't bother me to buckle down; for me it was a refreshing change. Especially refreshing was learning something real rather than pondering the abstract.
There were some drawbacks, of course. First was the money. When I had to sign the documents to borrow the first $25,000 for the first semester, I cried. Second was the time commitment. It was indeed hard, and it left me with little time to develop the rest of my life. For instance, I didn't deal with getting rid of the boyfriend with the messy painful issues for several years, during which time my biological clock started winding down. Third was the way it transformed me. In many good ways to be sure, but I did lose some of the things I liked about myself. I'd always had a phenomenal memory, but now I no longer could remember many details of my life. I actually forgot entire events ever took place. And I was no longer as able to be supportive of other people.
Am I glad I did it? Absolutely -- it really is my beautiful life much of the time. I am so suited to being a doctor. I've always been curious about the inner workings of other people -- both physical and mental -- and medicine gives me license to actually poke around and take a look. And I found TrophyHusband during residency, which was such a stroke of good luck I could hardly believe it -- I'd pretty much resigned myself to being single, since I'd rather be single than be with someone just to get married, and I was a terrible judge of who might be right for me.
I do regret that I didn't do it slightly sooner. I urge others who are considering med school to put it off a little while, because I think being older and having more life experience was tremendously helpful, but seven years was a bit longer than I needed.
People often ask if I still write fiction. I don't. I keep waiting to see if I'll ever feel the need to express myself in that way, and so far I haven't. But clearly I feel a need to express myself in some way, because here I am.