Monday, October 17, 2005

How I Became a Doctor

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.


Amie said...

I have been reading your blog pretty much since you started it. We are very different politically, but I love your blog none the less :D When I was a teenager I had this weird notion that if I learned about a disease I wouldn't get it. I know now that it doesn't work that way, but to this day most of my library books have something to do with health or medicine because it facinates me.

Its awesome that it all worked out for you.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say, I enjoyed your post today. I've recently started a blog and your post today seems to ring true about finding your true self. I am 31 and still trying to find a satisfying career...well actually trying to fit the things I enjoy most into something I love. So, thanks for sharing, it is always nice to read stories about others who are willing to take chances.

Orange said...

Lovely post.

Fiction, schmiction. You could always follow the Abraham Verghese model of doctor/writer. Or write journal articles or medical texts—as a doc who can actually write, you'd be an incredibly popular author among the medical editors.

Anonymous said...

i agree, and always tell those considering medicine to take at least a year or two and see the world before going to med school. i, by the way, went straight through and graduated when i was 25... i always felt bad for my patients who had to deal with what they perceived as a kid doctor. i was the first member of my family to graduate from college, let alone graduate school, so no one really understood the process well enough to tell me otherwise. i think it was the right decision for ME, but overall, it's good to take a little time. i had NO idea what i was getting into, that's for sure.

in my class of 100, there were only 10 of us who went right through... and 10 who were over 40. i think the face of medical students IS changing...

now, the real question. what will you tell your son, if HE wants to go into medicine?

DoctorMama said...


What will I tell my son ... I wouldn't forbid him to go straight through, but I'd strongly, strongly discourage it. My husband went straight through, and he's still got a little PTSD from internship year -- as of right now he hopes our son won't want to go into medicine at all. (Even though my husband loves his work as a researcher.)

I do mainly outpatient IM, but only 3-4 half days/week; the rest of the time I'm doing student/resident education stuff. I have a lot of urban/underprivileged patients who come from a very different background from mine, so I never get bored. I couldn't do a suburban practice. I think half of the people in this country get too little medical care, and the other half get too much. I like to work with the former.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, DoctorMama. Great story, and it answered my questions.


Anonymous said...

Backtracking a bit to say that I really enjoyed reading this post. I know two women who decided to go to medical school in their 30s... I remember being so proud of them and thinking that their experience in the "real" world would likely serve them, and their patients, well.

It's nice to hear from someone who has made it to the other side! Inspiring, too. :)

The Sane One said...

Nice post, thanks for sharing it. I know a woman who was 35 and started medical school at that age despite having four kids all under 16 :) So good for you, I'm glad you went for it.

Anonymous said...

hi, i would like to be an obgyn.... i just have no idea how to do this all. for now im taking the premed classes... but is there anyway to work while ur in med school? is it that time consuming?

patchmarty said...

I am absolutely stunned by your story. It's relieving and fascinating that someone has gone through something similar to what I am going through right now. I am 25 and trying desperately to get into med school to become what I realize I desire most. I too agree that life experience has made me more able to deal with the trials and tribulations of school. It just makes me feel good that at twenty five I can tell people that I'm not the only one starting at that age. Very inspiring. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

This is great, presently I am sitting in my living room watching my 10 week old twin girls in their swings, while I am trying to catch a break and surf the net a little. I am 28 and thinking about trying to get into med school, I am working on finishing my BS in biology. I did a google search to try and find something to inspire me and came upon your story first thing. I have also always been extremely fascinated with medicine, almost to the point of being obsessed. And weirdly, at 18 I too had a near nervous breakdown, accompanied by fears that I was suffering from an undiagnosed deadly disease (I actually went to several doctors) and unfortunately the internet was available to me which only fueled the problem. Anyway I am so inspired and I hope I will get up the nerve to fulfil my dream someday!

A_Rod said...

I just decided to type in "How I became a doctor" into Google, and your blog post came up first. Its a fascinating story and something similar to what I currently find myself in. When I started college in '99, I went in with full head of steam to become an MD. I was one of those crazy out of high school stallions that had never failed at anything. Then I took my first MCAT, and didn't do as well as I thought I would. Kind of messed my psyche up a little. So then I graduated and had to find work. Did the crazy thing of getting married to my high school/college sweetheart the day after graduation. So, now I had to find a job. Found a job as a lab technician (or assistant scientist as I like to call it), and hated it. Lasted one year in that field and it really turned me off to anything professionally science-related. So I became a high school teacher (one of my other goals in life was to help young people (a misunderstood group, in my opinion) in some form or fashion). After about 5 years of teaching (and 3 kids of my own) I now have the inkling and desire to go back into medicine, maybe as an MD, but more realistically as a PA. I guess what I really want to know from someone who has been through it is what are the daily struggles like for someone who gets into medical school and has a family (spouse and kids) at the same time? I'm only 27, so I still feel young enough for it, but I also have a 4 and 3 year old, and a newborn. I have taken a couple science/pre med classes lately and feel more ready when it comes to studying and focusing on the information. As a 17-21 year old, my study habits involved listening in class and cramming the night before the test. Now, I feel I have a more mature understanding of studying and how to study. Thoughts, please.

Betty (aka Jenna) said...

I cannot believe I stumbled across this awesome blog. You had me at liberal, coffee, alcohol, and running.

Dr. Mama, thanks for being awesome. I was also "left to grow" by my insane mother, suffered a breakdown in my ealy 20s, my father passed, and I majored in Theatre. All this time, having been told I was creative and not scientific, I believed someone enough to put my doctoring ambitions on hold. Now, I've traveled across Europe and the States, given up on the "intimacy vs isolation" era, and seen enough to buckle down and work to make my own life. I've researched all my options and all pre-med programs, but I think I will only be able to afford state school coursework - just like you.

This blog post has sincerely comforted me that a) there are women doctors who got a "late start" b) med schools loved you and c) that being raised an artist does not define your ultimate future.

This is wonderfully exciting! I will be reading your entire blog soon and I wish you the best!


Unknown said...

Hey, This is a pretty cool story! I'm happy for you and I'm impressed! My name is Melodie and I'm 15 years old, I'm thinking of maybe becoming a doctor or getting involved in Medicine for my future but I'm not sure! This story is a little similar to my life though I'm still young I haven't started anything yet but hey, it's never too early to start, right? I said this story is a bit similar to my life because I think I have a talent in writing and I love learning languages.I was thinking of becoming an Interpreter because I speak 4 languages but my parents said that's not a real job. With writing and speaking English, I always have problems with grammar and all of that because English is my third language. I started learning English about 2 years ago and not I'm on to Spanish!

Congratulations on becoming a doctor!
Please let me know if you have any suggestions for me or just tell me what you think, Because sometimes I change my mind.
I would love to hear from you!

Anonymous said...


I enjoyed reading your blog. I am currently in medical school and I was wondering if you have any advice on how to study for these courses as you have previously mentioned that you had figured out a way to study that worked for you. I look forward to your advice!


Flucky Mom said...

What an inspiring story... I'm going through a life-reevaluation. Thinking about going back to school. Start fresh. In my heart I know it's the right thing to do, but making all the pieces work (money, time, life) scares me. But I guess if I really really want this, I will make it work somehow.

Anonymous said...

I am so happy that I found this blog - I am 27, just got into medical school and also had the prestigious MFA fellowship (my writer's work ethic was a little sluggish). I have never encountered another MFA/MD combo until now!
Looking forward to reading more...

Unknown said...

I'm currently in college to get an associate's in health science, and for my english class I had to write a critique for a narrative essay I found online. I chose yours, and I just wanted to take a minute to share it with you :

DoctorMama is a blog written by an american woman. Her article "How I Became a Doctor" is all about her journey finding a way to take control of her life so that she may do the work she is most passionate about. As this is also a passion of mine, it was a wonderful read and a source of support in a way, since she also started later than most medical students yet still made it to where she wanted to be.
In "How I Became a Doctor", DoctorMama outlines her childhood and early adulthood up to her decision to take charge of her own fate. She mentions the atypical environment she had to grow up in, adequately portraying her reasons for delaying the education that would be necessary to practice medicine. From her obsession with medical articles and books when she was a child, to succumbing to the pressures from her artistic mother to pursue a degree in creative writing, DoctorMama went through quite a few identity issues before finally deciding to take her childhood dream and make it a reality.
I found this article to be well written for it's purpose. As a blog, it did not necessarily need to be perfect in grammar. Her usage of fragmented sentences and her overall writing style was perfect for portraying her personality, intensity and passion. I enjoyed the break down of her life, and her perspective and honesty were very refreshing. She points out the good and bad all the way, and mentions many different aspects, including her own and her mothers love life, which gives the reader a certain feeling of intimacy with her.
As I've said, this was a very enjoyable read. I don't have much criticism to give, except maybe to work on the sentence structure if this was to be a formally published essay. However, since it is not, and is actually a blog online serving a purpose for her and her alone, I don't believe that is necessarily relevant here.
Overall, I enjoyed the perspective given about a twenty-something woman finding the courage and audacity to take hold of her dreams. As a twenty-something woman myself with big dreams that sometimes seem a little daunting, this article allowed me to understand on an unprofessional, intimate and personal level that indeed, I can do exactly what I set out to do for myself.

Andi said...

Hi DoctorMama! I just want to say that I am so grateful to have stumbled upon your blog. Like you (okay, not exactly), I have a ~different~ background of study/field of expertise (sort of), and I love writing and photography. But, like you (this is true), I've always been into Biology, particulary Medicine (diagnosis, illnesses, diseases, prevention, treatment)--where the interest came from? I seriously had no idea, it just is. Now, I am considering taking the medical admission test, but the thought just sounds ridiculous. I have this unsettling feeling though that mocks me every time; that nagging voice ultimately translating to 'why are you not in medical school?' Or I'm interpreting it the wrong way? I'm also 20-something and not entirely sure if I'm cut out for it.

Thank you for your blog, it's amazing. After all, there's nothing more comforting than to learn you are not alone--or something close to it. :)

Fidel said...

Hi, my name is Robin. I have a huge favor to ask of you. Someone I adore is at a loose end, and wants to go to medical school as well. Your stories are strikingly similar in many ways. I'd be very grateful if there's a email address I would write to. My objective is to seek your help to inspire her, to tell her that it's more than possible. Will be grateful. Thanks you (

Unknown said...

Hi, my wife is 29 and really wants to become a doctor specialising in cancer. We have 3 kids under 8. I'll support her but is it going to be hard for her to get into medical school and study especially at her age and having kids? She has a diploma in councelling, is that enough for her to get into medical school?