Thursday, September 8, 2011

Pediatrics vs. teaching

I used to be a doctor, the kind with a stethoscope, the kind licensed to hurt you for you 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.


Jenny said...

I've long thought that the blogs I most look forward to and enjoy were written by people with brilliant thoughts. I still believe that. I've come to realize however, that they are also people who can really write. Beautifully, elegantly, thoughtfully. I find your ideas and your writing inspirational and thought-provoking.

Also, I believe lives depend on me and others in my building. That's why it hurts so much when we don't hit the mark.

John T. Spencer said...

Beautiful. This type of post is why I keep coming back to your blog.

Kathryn J said...

If you substitute engineering for medicine in the first part of this post, it works for me too. My students can't figure out why I left a high-paying job where I travelled the world to teach them. This week I'm struggling a bit to understand it too.

I do know I love this more! Even though I'm in a new building, I have seen students from previous years. I have received more hugs in the last three days than I can count on fingers and toes. Teenagers don't express joy like that unless it's real.

Your students are fortunate indeed that you took up teaching!

Fran said...

Nicely written, Mike. I've often wondered why you left medicine. I can tell from our conversations and what you wrote, that you truly do enjoy teaching.

There are very few inspiring teachers out there, and even though I have never sat in your Science class, you would be one of those teachers I would want my kids to have or be lucky enough myself to learn from you.

Some of us in teaching do just a little something more that makes a difference in a student's life - even if it is just a handful of students - we have made an impact on helping them lives their lives better!

Cool Hand Luke said...

You're still a practicing physician: bodymind and soul medicine.

Diane and Chad said...

From a teacher for 41 years....thank you for bringing love to the's sooo important and often lacking:) New follower here!

Eric Johnson said...

Terrific expression of why many of us chose this path of teaching. Thanks for sharing yours. Wonderful!

artfling said...

Thank you. Thank you.

Ms. Young said...

What a touching and inspirational blog. Thank you for sharing. This is my third (or fourth?) career, and I find it has been the most rewarding, by far.

Anonymous said...

I hope you are okay. You so rarely have this long a time with no post. I know it's the start of school, busy time, etc. Sometimes I worry about things over which I have no control.

doyle said...

Dear Everyone,

Thank you for the warm words, and sorry for the silence. Between the new school year, a new student teacher, and a new teacher I have been asked to support, as well as a new superintendent and supervisor with the concomitant changes in routine, well, it's been a sleep-deprived week.

And, oh yeah, a wicked sneak attack by poison ivy, to which, apparently, I am no longer immune.

And my laptop has been recently possessed by gremlins.

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?