How has medicine changed me? The honest answer is: for the better and for the worse. Let's start with the latter.
Before medicine, I inhabited time slowly. I spent a lot of time writing, a lot of time reading, and a lot of time engaged in no task in particular. I would make a salad with a friend and then eat it with her and then linger over the empty bowl talking about love and then seven hours later get up to make dinner and start over again. Before medicine, stories were as much about the how of the telling as the content. I loved words. I loved spending time with friends. I walked and sometimes even ran. I meditated. My memories from before medicine are of a particular way the light used to fall on the floor in the afternoon, of sitting at the kitchen table in the middle of the night reading a novel and crying at its beauty, of falling in love. Whatever work I was doing at a particular time was not what defined my life. It was never a day off or a day on, it was just a day.
Now I can never seem to have enough time. I am always behind on charts. There are always at least two more patients on the board waiting to see the doctor, both literally and figuratively. I am always aware of time. If I am off, I am aware of the need to take full advantage of that. Am I using my vacation time efficiently enough, I wonder? Am I relaxing enough? When I am on, there is the pressure to see patients faster, discharge them faster, order their antibiotics faster, think faster and talk faster and faster faster faster. When my formal work day is over, then there is the research work, the studying and reading, the charts to finish. I am no longer able to be at peace with time. There are too many people who need too many things! When I listen to a patient tell a story, I am waiting for the details to click into place that will allow me to identify their disease. Though I wish it were otherwise, I am not always really listening as they describe the dinner they were eating the night before the symptoms started. I am typing the things they have already said and waiting for the salient details to arrive: When did the pain start and where? How many times did the child vomit? Oh, a few days of cold symptoms and then barky cough and noisy breathing? Croup! Done! The story can be reduced to a sentence. I used to be a poet, enamored of the space between things, now I am a master of pattern recognition. I used to appreciate good novels, now I appreciate good historians, patients who can recall a sequence of events in roughly chronological order, people who have an innate sense of what is important and what is not.
Now for the better: Before medicine, I was anxious a lot of the time. Scared of public speaking. Scared of illness and death. Scared, ironically enough, of hospitals. I remember as a child seeing an elderly person in a wheelchair at the park vomiting into the bushes and feeling weak with a kind of existential nervousness about what life might bring. I took a long time to make decisions, worrying over the potential consequences of a wrong choice. I didn't like novelty. I didn't like surprises.
Now I can walk into a room with a child who is gasping for breath and it is still very scary, but my adrenaline translates into action. For me, it turns out that the drive to help a person who is suffering is stronger than fear. Medicine has organized me around a purpose, and even when that purpose feels daunting, exhausting, or completely impossible, I just do it. After presenting on rounds hundreds of times and being asked hundreds of questions publicly to which I didn't know the answer, I am able to accept that I am a work in progress. I used to worry what people would think of me if I made a mistake. Now I worry what will happen to patients if I make a mistake, and that change has been profound. I still worry a lot, mostly over the things I did or failed to do for patients, but this kind of worry makes me better at what I do. I am still afraid of illness and death, but I understand in a way I could never have understood before that these things are the way of life. When they find out I am a pediatrician, people often say, "I could never be around sick children. It would make me too sad." And I think to myself, "Someone has to be with those children." Children get sick, children die, and creating distance between ourselves and that reality does not change that reality. Medicine has taught me how to be strong for other people.
Sometimes it is hard to remember, or re-enter, the world of everything else, by which I mean the world in which things are happening that are not related to how the heart and lungs and kidneys are functioning. When I go to a performance or concert now, sometimes I have an intrusive thought about what I would do if the performer collapsed, if they were pulseless and needed compressions, if they had a seizure. In the midst of watching a person accomplish an incredible act of beauty or physical agility or creativity, I find myself mentally reviewing the ACLS guidelines for cardiac arrest or wondering if the venue has an automatic defibrillator and if so, where. I have trouble relaxing out of the life of the body and into the life of the mind. For me, beauty used to be the highest calling. Now I just want to make sure that everyone makes it through the night. I have to fight the impulse to turn to whoever is sitting next to me at the show and whisper something along the lines of, "Don't you realize our bodies could fail at any time?!" Then I have to remind myself that there is more to living than maintaining physiologic homeostasis, even if nothing would be possible without it.
To summarize: I feel less and do more. I spend less time contemplating
and more time problem solving. I am both farther away from and closer to
life. I miss the person I once was and am proud of the person I am now. Maybe one day, when my own journey in a body is nearing its end, I'll return to the light on the floor in the afternoon and the spaces between things and the lunches that turn into dinners. In the meantime, I am going to work on getting better at taking care of sick children and will probably always be behind on charts and will spend my vacations trying to get as much done as possible with only minimal success.