I shifted uncomfortably in the abrasive, starched, blue hospital gown. The sheets were itchy. The pillow was lumpy. There was a crack in the ceiling. I should’ve been thinking about the surgery ahead, but at 17, I was trying to focus on just about anything else. Dr. Wendt laid his hand on my arm, looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re going to do great. I’ll be with you the entire time.” He was warm and confident and I immediately relaxed.
After the procedure, he confessed to my mother that he had been up all night. He said he hadn’t worried so much about a case since residency. It was a simple operation, but he had been my cardiologist for years and said he would never forgive himself if anything bad happened. He wondered if maybe he should’ve sent me to another specialist or a larger hospital. He cared too much.
Recently, I was told I cared too much. Over the years, I’ve been criticized for being too happy, too optimistic, too nice and too excited. As a female physician, I’ve learned that I will always be too much of something for someone but these are the qualities that make me who I am. I feel things deeply and I’m not afraid to admit that. Generally, this is seen as a weakness in medicine, but it shouldn’t be.
I’m going to keep being the doctor that cares too much. I want my patients to know that I take them seriously – whether they’re worried about a benign skin rash or a possible new malignancy. Their lives are important. From that time on, we’re intertwined. I listen to them because I know how necessary it is to feel heard.
There’s this sense of urgency in medicine that starts when we’re pre-meds with a seemingly never-ending to-do list. Take human nature, add competition, a pinch of self-doubt, high stakes, a handful of stress, and shake. Hard. Then add medical school applications, board scores and residency match and you’ve created an environment that can bring out both the best and the worst in people.
Research has shown that a lot of students enter medical school full of empathy and leave filled with cynicism. Somewhere along the road, we start seeing all these steps as roadblocks preventing us from reaching the “lives” we dreamed up in elementary school. As aspiring doctors, we devote over a decade of work to a singular goal, hoping to obtain a holy grail at the end of it all. How could anything ever live up to that?
It’s important to remember that we are living our lives right now. Every second. If you truly hate what you are doing, do yourself, your patients and your colleagues a favor and get out of medicine. Take a break. Travel the world. Write a book. Choose a different field.
Never forget that practicing medicine is a choice. You are not stuck here. If you made it this far, you’re likely to be a smart, talented, driven person who can find success in a number of fields. So if you find yourself disappointed, disenchanted or drowning, then reach out to a friend, your dean, or your college counselor. If none of those work, reach out to me.
Try to remember why you started studying in the first place. Whether you wanted to help a single person, change the entire system or invent a new technology to streamline patient care, keep chasing that dream. Innovation always seems crazy to people who lack imagination. Don’t let someone else’s lack of heart stop you from following yours. Find the thing that drives you and focus on that.
Hold on to the person that you were when you started down this path and don’t let the criticism change you. Whether you’re too quiet, too dedicated, too hard, too soft, too emotional, too focused or just too nice – keep on being too much. As you experience success, people will resent you for your hard work. Work even harder. The world doesn’t need one more person trying to fit a mold someone else cast. What it really needs are more people willing to follow their dreams. So find whatever it is that sets your soul on fire and go light up the world.
Sarah can be reached on twitter @sbernsteinmd
About Sarah M. Bernstein, MD, MHA
Sarah is a pediatrics resident at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a graduate of Emory University School of Medicine. She graduated with a B.S. and Masters in Health Administration (M.H.A.) from Cornell University and has worked as a healthcare consultant in the population management division. She is passionate about global health and enjoys working with high acuity patients in resource-limited settings. At Cornell, Sarah served on the Public Service Center’s Leadership Council and as founder and president of Cover Africa, an organization dedicated to eradicating malaria in Humjibre, Ghana. Today, Cover Africa has over 800 members and has donated over $100,000 to the fight against malaria.
Throughout medical school, she has sustained this passion for global health – serving as Vice-President of Public Relations for Emory Health Against Human Trafficking (EHAHT) and a researcher with Operation Smile in Guwahati, India where she helped to develop and validate a new tool that would allow physicians to objectively assess the severity of pre-surgical cleft lips and palates internationally. Long term, Sarah hopes to combine her passion for global health with the skills she has developed as a patient, consultant and clinician to improve patient access and eliminate costly inefficiencies in healthcare systems worldwide. In her free time, she enjoys acting, drawing and exploring new cities and cultures with her husband, Gehrig.