I remember the day I first wanted to be a doctor.
There was a traditional event that the fourth grade class held each year: Career Week. No, we did not have professionals come and lecture to us about their jobs. Instead, we were each assigned a career to research and present to our entire class. We were required to read two books about the topic and meet with a professional from that career. Impressive for fourth graders, no?
When it was time to pick our slip of paper with our “career” from a fishbowl, I eagerly reached my hand in, anticipating the auspicious slip labeled “artist” or “veterinarian” or “professional athlete”. After opening the crumpled piece of paper, my eyebrows furrowed at the sight of “pediatrician”. My heart sank in disappointment. I didn’t even know what pediatrician meant. The word itself sounded alien to me. I feared the kids in my class would not want to pay attention to my presentation—so why even try to make an effort? I dreaded even starting.
To get started on my research project, my mom ordered several books online, which I still own today and sometimes still reference. I can see the evolution of my handwriting by my signatures on the back of the cover pages. The text in these books was small and tightly spaced—a more challenging reading level than I had yet to experience. I didn’t always comprehend what I was reading and was easily frustrated. I think, frankly, I didn’t want to care about the topic since I had decided it was outside of my interests before even starting. I found the subject matter dull, and worse, when I found out the actual definition of “pediatrician”, I couldn’t stop thinking how ridiculous it was for a kid to research a kid doctor.
I still needed to meet with an actual pediatrician to interview for my project. My mom lugged me in the car to my pediatrician’s office, which at the time, I also found uninteresting (except for the fish tank. I found that quite entertaining as a nine year-old). The pediatrician welcomed me into her office, while my mom waited in the waiting room. I had forgotten how much she remembered about my family’s life and how comforting her smile was. She asked me about school, my friends, my dog Beau, and seemed to remember miniscule details about me. I’d also forgotten how warm and friendly the practice was; the receptionists had baby pictures of patients covering every inch of the walls and a TV screen that alternated with digital family Christmas cards. I began by asking my pediatrician a few required questions: What made you choose your career? What do you do? What types of skills are required? What type of/how much education is required? She thoughtfully answered my questions, then took me on a little tour through the office. She showed me the patient rooms, each with a different theme (jungle, ocean, circus, etc.). Then, she showed me a small incubator which held some streptococcal tests. My eyes lit up—something about the fact that strep and its components could be visually analyzed intrigued me. I had never really imagined what strep looked like or how it worked when I contracted it. I just remembered how sick I felt. It was mind blowing to me to be able to delineate what caused my sickness.
This unleashed my imagination. I realized there was so much more to study about the human body than just what we see on the outside. I understood that inside of us, we hold billions of components that all work towards a common purpose: keeping us alive. At this point, I was more enthusiastic to give my presentation. When the time came, I couldn’t wait to share the facts: I talked about the books I’d read, meeting with my pediatrician, and even shared what I learned about the strep tests. All of a sudden, my classmate raised his hand for a question and I looked at him intently, anticipating an easy, logistical question about pediatrics.
“Are you going to be a pediatrician when you grow up?”
I hadn’t foreseen that question. I stood awkwardly for a brief moment in front of my eighty classmates and handful of teachers, feeling stunned. But then I did something that surprised me. I looked the boy in the face and said, “Yes, I will be.”
I said the words automatically, yet I had never been surer about anything else in my life.
I won’t say my epiphany just magically occurred. Because I don’t believe that our greatest dreams and ambitions manifest themselves that easily. If I hadn’t overcome the difficulty I encountered with reading and hadn’t had the motivation to figure out what a pediatrician was, I probably wouldn’t have the same gripping interest for science that I have today.
In many ways, I believe college students are comparable to fourth-graders. There are times when we find work too challenging, and too advanced. There are times we have the impression that we are failing or not living up to our expectations, when we’re really just awaiting a moment that will open our eyes and minds to something wonderful. The hardest moments of our lives are the ones we remember the most because they challenge us to change our mindsets and extend beyond our comfort zones.
Medicine requires people with the stamina to see through challenges with grace, kindness and selflessness. I know I need to continue to prepare academically for this career. I study biology for hours on end, go to chemistry office hours nearly every week, and am planning to devote significant time to MCAT prep. But when it comes down to it, some of the best practice one can get to become a physician is to practice kindness, empathy, and compassion in everyday life. Qualities of my own pediatrician that I have come to deeply appreciate over the years.
I remind myself of that every day, when I am interacting with strangers, asking my friends how they are, saying a simple “thank you” to someone who has helped me, and remembering that we as human beings must take care of each other.
I plan to carry that reminder, and my pediatrician’s example, with me through medical school and into my practice. So, when in the future, a fourth grader comes to ask me why I decided to become a physician for their research project, I will have an answer well-prepared.
About Belle Pace
Belle Pace is a first-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia, planning to double major in Biology and Global Studies. She comes from Richmond, Virginia. You can reach out to her on Twitter at @bellepace1.