Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why I left medicine to teach

I used to be a doc, the real kind with tongue blades. I am now entering my 7th year of teaching. 
Students often ask me why I left medicine. Here's what I thought last year, and it still holds.

I used to be a doctor, the kind with a stethoscope, the kind licensed to hurt you for your own good. It puzzles children to learn that a physician would walk away from medicine in order to teach, and there are days I am baffled myself.

I liked medicine. I love teaching. I did not know that this would be true when I left medicine, so while it is true, it is not enough to explain why I left. Why leave something you like, especially when it pays ridiculously well?

Every year children ask me this, and so far I have not quite gotten it right. I thought I had it right, but high school sophomores would kind of shake just a little bit sideways. I wasn't fooling them.

I think I got it right now.

I saw a lot of bad stuff in hospitals. I saw a lot of good stuff, too, but good stuff can be found in a lot of places. The truly bad stuff has a home in the hospital.

  • The unlucky (an elderly woman who slowly died from an infection caused by an errant piece of metal ripping through her car's floor, riveting in her thigh).
  • The doomed (a woman burned over most of her body, still conscious, still talking, immediately before we intubated her, rendering her speechless--we knew she was doomed when we did this. We did it anyway.)
  • The curious (two babies sharing the same torso, the same heart, the same fate).
  • The geographically screwed (an Asian toddler who needed a new heart, but who could not afford one, twisting away towards death as she lived in an American hospital as an alien).
  • The innocent (children wasting away from a virus we barely understood, acquired from a mother's heroin habit or her lover's proclivities).

I was very good at diagnosis, and not bad at making things better once a diagnosis was made. A few were better than me, but not many.

 When you are surrounded by hurt, there are two ways to respond if you want to remain functional--fix it, or pretend it does not exist. I did a lot of fixing.

If you do medicine long enough, and if you are paying attention, you give death its due. It's real, it's usually ugly, and it's inevitable.

I can't beat death--took me awhile to get to that realization, but I got there. And it's liberating.

Turns out living isn't the goal--living well is what matters.

I was pretty good at helping people live longer. Now I'm getting good at helping people live well.

I thought my job mattered before, but had my doubts in the pitiful wail of a dying toddler, bruised and bleeding as we laid our hands, our technology, and finally our fists in futile CPR on her tiny body as it cooled its way back to entropy.

A life worth living is our only compensation against the greedy hand of death.

So I help children carve out a life worth living.

I'm a teacher.

If you teach, teach as though lives depend on it. If you think this is excessive, get out.
Photos by me or Leslie--feel free to use under CC.


Malcolm said...

good answer.

Sue VanHattum said...

I hope I do more good than harm. I know that math is used to filter people out (of jobs like medicine, and of school), and that is a terrible thing.

I know that many students feel very uncomfortable with math, because of their school experiences. I hope I can help some of them see and touch the beauty of math.

I know I have done harm to some students. When there are 40 students in a class, there is no way to attend to the needs of each individually.

I try to make my classroom fun, my grading fair, and the math engaging. I love it when it's working.

Kate said...

Great answer. And I, for one, am delighted that you are a teacher. You remind me to ground my work in the real lives of students, and let me share my work and life with you.

Thanks for teaching us all.

Face said...

Jesus Christ, this is good.

Frank Vitale said...

Excellent post and a great thing to read with school starting soon.

Thank you.

Fran M said...

Love your insight Mike! I often wondered the same things that your students have. But after spending time during the summer with you in Cape May, I see your true calling as teacher - you are a wealth of knowledge and obviously love what you do. You are a huge asset to our profession - keep molding those young impressionable minds!

David Fine said...

Doctor Doyle,

This is an amazing post. It is about a year and a half since my last class with you, but I know my experiences in A.P. Bio helped me become a much more driven student.

GratefulMystic said...

Thank you, Michael. I think teachers play play possibly the most influential role in helping to change self-perceptions.

Doctors fix bodies and sometimes help to heal lives. Teachers --the really good ones-- not only get their young students to learn and think; they somehow get them to see themselves in a new light, a light those always-remembered teachers have a special 6th sense to perceive. The light of their students' potential. What could be more healing?

Your mom was one of those teachers for me, so I'm very grateful you are doing the same for my daughter's generation. You deserve all of the intrinsic joy of this calling. Thank you!

Your brother, Al

Anonymous said...

thank you

William Chamberlain said...

I usually say I became a teacher because I loved to learn. I like your answer better.

Barry B. said...

I always wondered why you left medicine, now I know. Me, I still love teaching and I also love medicine and teacher, which is why, 26 years later I still volunteer as an EMT and really enjoy training rookie EMTs.!

Ashley Storey said...

holy crap. heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.

Christen said...

The next question, then, is: what advice would/do you give to young people (or not-exactly-young people, for whom this would be a second career) thinking of going into medicine?

scholarpon said...

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Kathryn J said...

This is wonderful. I get the same question about engineering and my students also do not believe. My answer needs improving.

You inspire me to do better at both teaching and enjoying life!

MJNairn said...

Thank you so very much for this post. My dad, 79 years old and a retired doctor, has seen his diffuse large B-cell lymphoma return in an aggressive form after a very brief remission. I want to make sure he lives well.

I am a middle school science teacher and I want my students to be wide-eyed with wonder about the world around them. I think that's why I like your blog so much.

Unknown said...

I love your answer there is so much more to life and the children need to see this thank you for your insight and wish there was more teachers like you with the wealth of knowledge you have

Beth Mazza said...

I love your answer there is so much more to life and the children need to see this thank you for your insight and wish there was more teachers like you with the wealth of knowledge you have