Friday, August 26, 2016

Why I left medicine to teach

I used to be a doc, the real kind with tongue blades. I am now entering my 11th year of teaching.
Students often ask me why I left medicine. Here's what I thought 5 years ago, 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.

Originally posted 5 years ago.


Kate T said...

Have a great year, Michael. Thank you for reminding me of the real goal.

Unknown said...

I left a lucrative career as an oilfield geologist in the Rocky Mountains to become a teacher. Though I miss working in places regular folk would come to on vacation, I have never regretted the switch.

I am now at the end of my teaching career, probably my last year actually, and every day, I am acutely aware of what I will be leaving behind and what I will miss.

What I will not miss is the current state of the system as it has become entirely polluted. Once corporate America figured out how to tap the public education dollar pipeline, things have gone sour.

But it is the kids, the kids and the kids that I will miss...they have been keeping me young(er) and I am somewhat fearful about losing contact with them.

We shall see.

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

Thank you--I get so much more than I give from you.

Dear Cush,

You get it--and your kids are fortunate. Tutor? Coach? Spew truth from soapbox on the local green? Just. Don't. Stop.


Women and Men Living Together said...

Very crreative post