Sunday, May 26, 2013

Medical School at My Age

A week ago, a few days before graduation, I was asked the question I hear more frequently than any other: "Why did you choose to attend medical school at this time in your life?" My questioner went on to say, he'd graduated in the late 70s and couldn't imagine doing it "at my age." 

You'd think I'd have gotten enough practice, after six years, that answering questions like his wouldn't require much reflection. To a certain extent, that's true, except that over time my understanding of why I undertook this process has grown, and along with it, the way I respond to questions related to age. 

Now, to be fair, some of it does have to do with how I read the the other person. What do they really want to know and how much time have they got? Is it polite cocktail party curiosity or are they contemplating a course correction in their own career? In this case, the question was posed by an attending anesthesiologist I'd just met and we scarcely had any time at all, so I talked briefly about pursuing a dream. As I walked to my car a bit later, it occurred to me how impossible it is to imagine myself not  being a medical student at this point in my life and how very little age has, or has had, anything to do with it.

Admittedly, that isn't entirely true. Before I undertook medical school, I argued vociferously against it, considering age my most salient point. I wanted to become a doctor and, particularly a psychiatrist, I always had, but the circumstances of life took me in other directions and it seemed ridiculous to suppose anyone would take me seriously now. Obviously, I eventually lost that argument and what I've realized over time is I never had a chance of winning in the first place. Something was afoot in my life that neither reason nor common sense nor anything else had the power to effectively counter, as I hope the following story reveals.

It was a Sunday night and my shift as a substance abuse therapist at a Boston hospital was 30 minutes away from being history when I was paged to the nursing station to handle an admission. My patient was an older, intoxicated gentleman, accompanied by his adult son. They were pleasant, intelligent, lived out on the Cape (Cod), and despite grumbling to myself about having a new admission so close to sign-out, I immediately took a liking to them both. A few moments later, while meeting with the father to sign his paperwork, he said to me, "Doctor, I want to tell you how all of this began..."  I ought to have told him I was only his therapist, but hearing the title, "doctor," honestly it felt so good, I just couldn't

I told myself I'd explain the next day and I did. I wasn't trying to mislead him, but it felt like unfaithfulness to something I didn't quite understand, to correct him. You might say he was under the influence and simply mistook me for his physician because I was an older male. I say in vino veritas. Unknowingly, and probably unconsciously, he saw into a deep and private place and called me by the name nobody, not my parents, my friends, or anyone else, had ever spoken. For the first time in my life it seemed as though someone knew who I was. How could I deny that?

Back then I wasn't so much thinking as feeling. Drawing near the end of this leg of the journey, I've done a great deal of thinking and I've begun to realize how very much it's been like growing into a father's shoes. When we're young, we slip into them and they're huge, so huge we can't walk without stepping out of them. One day, they've grown smaller and then smaller still until they fit us as well as dad. Why attend medical school at my age? I guess you could say, that's when the shoes finally fit.

In another life, to borrow from Katy Perry, whom I love, I might have gone to medical school "on time." The tricky thing about other lives is they don't come into being unless we find a way to make them. I didn't have the keys to a Delorean (Back to the Future) in my pocket, so reversing the time-space continuum wasn't an option. All I could do was be like the proverbial turtle, who never gets anywhere unless he sticks his neck out. Yes, I was older and by definition, that meant attending medical school as an older, rather than younger, adult. Age was a piece of my puzzle. But it was only a single piece and nowhere near my biggest one. Had I been born someone else, it might have been gender, race, or national origin. We all have something we can't change.  

George Eliot (pen name of Mary Anne Evans), author of Silas Marner, said, "It's never too late to be who you might have been," to which I'd add, until it's too late for everything but that final breath.  What has become clearer and clearer to me is how much medical school and now, residency, have come to mean immeasurably more than simply fulfilling a long cherished dream. They mean being true to what I've learned about myself as this process has unfolded and there really are very few things quite as important. They mean acting on the freedom to make choices of my own rather than making up excuses for denying them and then, trying to live with the consequences. They also mean, considering everything that lies behind and whatever lies ahead of me, there isn't anything to make me regret coming this way.

(Photo copyright 2013 by the author)
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