In my culture, the belief is that a person who is bright with a mind for science could do no better than become a doctor. I love science, especially biology and physiology. As a little kid I would examine the scabs of my perpetually skinned knees with wonder. “Some day I will know what this is made of,” I thought. I remember the first day of my second year of medical school, when my pathology professor explained the mysterious scab. It was made of special proteins with scientific names. It required a whole system of cascading reactions to come into being. I was hooked.
I was fascinated with birth defects. Instead of turning away I wanted to know what exactly is wrong and how exactly did that happen. In junior high school I learned that the reference desk at my local library held a book called the March of Dimes Compendium of Birth Defects. I would trade in my library card as collateral and carry the heaviest, most enormous book I’d ever seen to a table where I would sit alone for as long as I could and flip the pages slowly. Each picture drew me in. It was like walking in the Louvre; even in a lifetime I would never see it all. The secret mechanisms behind those pictures were revealed to me in my embryology class. I loved learning how 2 “half-cells” became a human being with all our physical complexity. But even more so, I savored the pages of the text with pictures from that March of Dimes book and captions that described the process that went awry.
Years before medical school while an undergraduate at an Ivy League university I surprised myself by becoming sidetracked from my career path. I started to learn American Sign Language at a nearby school for the deaf. My thirst for understanding shifted from science to people, language, and culture. I majored in anthropology and stopped studying for my medical school entrance exam. I made forays into the insular “Deaf World” and spent a semester at Gallaudet University, the liberal arts college for the deaf in Washington, D.C. I moved to Israel and lived on an agricultural commune called a Kibbutz. I worked in an archeological excavation and led tourists on archeological adventures on our dig. I completed my bachelors degree from abroad. I explored the world and a little bit of myself. Despite all the wonderful experiences I was having, I felt empty and not worth much.
When I returned to the United States, it seemed that becoming a physician would fill that emptiness. Again, I pinned my happiness on that dream. Many times when I was feeling low, I would revisit the fantasy of saving a life, and feeling right. In some ways the culture of medical school puffs up the students egos in the same way we plump up chickens with steroids. There is a myth that we are the elite, just being there. To be honest, for someone like me, a natural test-taker with a great memory and a strong will to succeed, medicine is almost an easy path.Yes, it is a long road and it requires self sacrifice. But, it is a very well trod path. Once you jump on, it is almost hard to turn off. There’s a machine and a system in place to keep you on, and help you succeed.
I had thought I was enchanted with scabs and birth defects. But, putting my hands on a woman’s beating heart was the pinnacle. I had this opportunity in the operating room as a third year medical student rotating on the surgery service. I could tell that the surgeon had a little crush on me despite his being 50 years my senior. He let me be part of the team that removed a cancerous lung. He wanted to “show me a good time” and so during the operation, he encouraged me to put my hands on the patient’s heart when it was exposed. There was a tremendous energy in that rhythm. It passed like an electric current into my own hands and coursed through my own veins. I experienced the the power of the origin of the human pulse! It was the life force condensed in its most primal physical parameter. It was a beautiful summer day with the sun shining and a light breeze blowing outside the walls of the hospital. I had worked long days everyday of the past seven. I had woken up exhausted and dragged myself to the hospital. Yet, cloistered away under those artificial lights I was alert and energized. I could think of no other place I’d rather be than in that windowless bubble of the OR, with my palm on a beating heart.