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Do I Really Want To Do This?

JeffJeff Wonoprabowo -- Throughout the year, one question loomed over me, haunting me like a bad dream: "Do I really want to go through all of this to become a doctor?" It's a question I think is harder to answer now than when I was in college, especially now that I’ve started to see what I am getting myself into.

One day while I was in high school, I was sitting on the couch in front of the television. I’m not sure what I was watching. I do remember my mom calling me away from the tv set. She called me into the living room because she wanted to talk. I found it rather odd; it seemed totally out of the blue. But, I suppose, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Conversations with mom sometimes seem, at least to me, to come right out of left field. That evening my mom defied the stereotype that all Asian parents want their children to become a doctor or a lawyer. She sat me down to tell me she didn’t want me to become a doctor. That conversation was in high school.

The thing is, I was never the child who grew up with dreams of becoming a doctor. When my mom found out she was pregnant, she decided that in order to stay at home with me she would have to start her own business. She started a data entry business. As a result, I grew up around computers and decided that one day I wanted a career that involved computers.

But here I am, now a medical student. Although I have only completed the first year, I’m on my way towards earning the right to add the initials M.D. behind my name. Not that I need any more letters; my last name is long enough.

It’s scary, though. I have put myself on a path towards becoming a physician -– a path that is long and quite expensive. Should I continue down this path, I know I will find myself in a very rewarding career with enough money to keep a roof over my head and food on the table.

It's a frustrating journey. There's a ton of information that is force-fed during the pre-clinical years. At times it's a challenge to see how some of it is even relevant to patient care. More than once during my first year, I wondered if I really want to do this. It was almost a monthly cycle; it coincided with exams that came about every five weeks. I hated exam weeks. Actually, I still do. But those were the times when I wondered, considered, and longed for being somewhere else. I enviously think about friends who have finished school and are earning a good paycheck. Then I take a look at the numbers on the statements I receive from my lender. It is always a little shocking to see how quickly those numbers grow. Sadly, the balance of my checking account has the opposite trend.

Yet there are times where I am truly grateful for the chance to be where I am. And there are many more times where I am excited about the possibilities of where I’m headed. Because medicine -– being invited into the depths of patients’ lives –- is exciting. I wouldn’t blog about medical school if I thought it was boring, depressing, and monotonous. On second thought, I probably would. But if you're reading this site, you probably wouldn't be my target audience.

Sure, it can be hard and time-consuming. Obviously it can be very frustrating. But after having spent six weeks in the wards with attendings, residents, and medical students (2 at the beginning of the school year and 4 after), I think I have found a source of inspiration and motivation. It's not about the prestige; I don't think all the training is worth what prestige is left in the profession. It's not about the money; there are easier and shorter paths to earning a decent living. It’s not about being your own boss; the current medical system has made that terribly difficult. It's all about the patients.

And now I think I've found the answer to that looming question. I just hope my answer doesn't get lost in the deluge that will come in the form of my second year...

July 1, 2008 in Jeff Wonoprabowo | Permalink


Wow, you must be the first aspiring doctor to have figured that one out - it's all about the patients! Who'd have thought?! Congrats, doc!

Posted by: Amy | Jul 1, 2008 12:17:00 PM

LOL. Thanks, I guess...

It may be easier for the third and fourth years to remember; they see patients all the time. But for us first and second years, who have very little patient contact.. Well I think it gets too easy to forget why we wanted to go to medical school in the first place.

Posted by: Jeff W | Jul 1, 2008 1:18:05 PM

It's funny that you posted this. As you know, I am finishing up my 3rd year and I was talking to a few of my classmates about this very topic. They referred to a talk that they heard from a faculty member at a conference where he said if you never ask yourself "Why am I doing this," then something is wrong. It's all part of the journey to develop why we went into medicine beyond our naive concepts of medicine in our application personal statements. Believe me, you will ask yourself this again as you spend countless hours studying for Step 1 at the end of second year, and yet again when you work your first 80 hour week on OB/GYN with no sleep! I think it's good for you too keep asking yourself the question and it will continue to guide you in your ultimate career decisions with medicine.

Posted by: medobsession | Jul 1, 2008 2:14:39 PM

Great post.

I just wanted to say that I had a similar experience as a young adult. I never really thought about becoming a doctor until it hit me one day.

There are still days when I question that decision. That's a natural, and I think incredibly healthy reaction to the demands of medicine.

But you are absolutely correct about the reason for going into medicine. I can't imagine that anyone could be motivated by any other reason than the patients.

Unfortunately, you only have limited patient contact in the first two years of med school. You are bombarded on all sides by seemingly useless information.

But then you eventually make your way out onto the wards. And then the inspiration returns. I'm halfway through my first clerkship, and I've found it to be quite inspiring. Finally, a use for all that information!

Keep up the hard work, and the rewards will come. And when they do, you will continually be reminded why you chose this path.

Good luck!

Posted by: Kendra | Jul 1, 2008 4:08:57 PM

hi, i am actually in the seventh week of my 3rd year. wow, i have to say that i am totally agree with you. 'patients' will always be the main motivation to hold onto what i am doing now. my first posting is obs/gynae. well, if i didn't keep on reminding myself about the 'patients'. all i feel about this posting is MISERABLE. anyway,
it's fun reading through your blog, feel very much connected, keep it up!

Posted by: holly | Jul 2, 2008 11:16:38 PM

Hey I found you!! lol. I first want to say congrats to finishing your first YEAR!! WOOAH!! Thats extremely big and exciting to know. Honestly, I am starting to believe that medical school is truly a test of a person's dedication to a particular subject under possibly stressful situations. It seems like you have found a little peace of mind or at least a mantra to keep you going. Whenever your stressed just think about why you are doing it and remember its for the bigger CAUSE.

Well, I am currently working on the spotlight interview and I would like to invite some of your friends on here to come check it out when its all done. I hope I do you some justice!! :)

Posted by: Linda from BM | Jul 6, 2008 4:23:10 AM

Hey check this out when you get a chance

Posted by: Linda from BM | Jul 6, 2008 9:46:27 PM

hey there!!! i guess not all of us grew up dreaming of becoming a doctor...i didn't even know what i wanted to be during highschool, and during college, i went to take up BS Zoology just because i got accepted easily into the program than other courses..and when i graduated, it was like a common path to proceed to medicine... and right now, i recently passed the medical board... but i guess i have just realized and appreciate more the work of a doctor...so keep going on...
PS: my elder sister who has a masters degree in business hopefully is going into med too...and asking her? it definitely will be worth it....all the sacrifices and hardwork :-)

Posted by: ninette | Jul 8, 2008 1:03:42 AM

The optimism of a med student... It's a good thing you don't actually participate in BEING a doctor until residency, otherwise you'd definitely get out while you can. The cynicism of a real doctor... Don't worry, it'll happen.

Posted by: bw | Jul 8, 2008 3:29:42 PM

Being a doctor is not financially rewarding anymore in this day & age. Make sure you're doing it to help people; otherwise, you'll be really disappointed.

Posted by: fpl | Jul 8, 2008 3:43:28 PM

Thanks so much for your post, Jeff. It's nice to hear someone say that they have doubts out loud. When I dropped out of Med school (yes, I still check MedScape from time to time) I got a lot of "What are you thinking?!" looks when I decided to quit after almost finishing third year.

When I answered that question for myself after really getting a feel for medicine, my answer was, "No, I don't really want to do this." It was hard to face, financially, emotionally, personally. I was doing well, I loved medicine, but the lifestyle just wasn't for me. I have two small children and 4 more years of not seeing them every day was just not a sacrifice I was willing to make for that much longer. My life had changed and so had my priorities.

Believe it or not, I've survived the separation from Medical school intact and I'm doing well. I have a 9-5 job, I play with my kids every day and I get to do whatever I want every night and weekend. That's what's important to me.

In my opinion, it doesn't matter what your answer is to what's keeping you in medicine. You are the one who has to live with the answer. And if you're all about the patients, medical school is just going to get better and better. :)

Good luck!

Posted by: Anita | Jul 8, 2008 3:48:20 PM

Why? Well, it's a uniquely valid question. Medicine is a huge commitment in life. The answers as to "why?" are more ephemeral and profound than you might realize. I think it goes beyond childhood dreams, or the allure of enormous challenges (and the arrogance needed to believe in your ability to rise to those challenges), or even having to do with making a difference in the lives of patients. It is also a sense of accomplishment, knowing that not EVERYONE on the planet can accomplish. And, knowing that you are on a path of discovery and learning that will last a lifetime--it won't ever be dull--and sharing that with an enormous fraternal order that you can always also collaborate with for whatever reason. Can't really think of any better reasons to keep foraging ahead. But . . . NOT to question what you're doing, every day, would be following a path blindly. And that leads to disaster and resentment.

Life becomes more interesting the more you try it.

-Christopher Torri

Posted by: christopher | Jul 8, 2008 3:50:03 PM

Every time exam week comes, I also end up asking myself if I really want to be a doctor. It is grueling, we jeopardize our health stressing out over exams, and it is physically demanding. When I was first applying to med school, I prayed for an admission. That seemed to be the hardest thing at that time. Now, it is overcoming your self-doubts and getting through med school that is even harder than getting in. I do not mean to make this post anymore negative, but to prospective medical students out there, you really have to know what you are getting yourself into.

As for me, I just can't see myself doing anything else but medicine. I love the challenge, and the exceptional things I get to experience meeting different people from every walks of life.

Posted by: rp | Jul 8, 2008 4:21:30 PM

It's amazing to read everyone's post... Indeed it is all about the patient!
I am on my 4th year of medschool, I picked by choice to go to school abroad, where we have direct contact with the patients, and we work as a team with residents. Right now I am on Surgery Rotation. We as interns have shifts. One week we have to be on the ER, and one week floating through the hospital and assisting surgeries. I will say this I learned my love for my patient the first time I cleaned a foot with cutaneous myiasis!( this is very common here) I had a friend and partner that did throw up on top of his patient foot!!(it was that bad) Thank God it didnt' happend to me.But I say this bc one of the advantages of going to medschool abroad is that we have direct contact with patients and the smell of rotten that comes out of that foot is really hard to grasp!! We learn doing, residents do it first, they teach us and then we do it... For me, this particular experience was reality check!! Now I know more than ever before why I picked my career, and I wouldn't trade it in the world, yes... it has been hard, specially abroad, where you sometimes are in the middle of stitching and their is a power outage, but if I had the choice again... I would have a choice of becoming a physician once again I would pick medschool abroad once again, for this reason...It's all about the patients!!

Posted by: Joe | Jul 8, 2008 4:53:39 PM

I think medical schools need to be more supportive of students who ask that question and decide the answer is "no". There are many opportunities in today's market to leverage an MD degree outside of clinical practice but discussion of such options is still often considered heresy.

Posted by: Neel Shah | Jul 8, 2008 4:54:39 PM

GREAT post! It's refreshing to see someone else feels similarly. And as many have mentioned in previous comments, it is healthy to question our decision. Congratulations and good luck! :)

Posted by: MaryEllen | Jul 8, 2008 5:25:22 PM

...hmmm, so what did you write on your med school application essay for, "why medicine?" anyway, there are many, many things that you can do with an MD besides caring for patients (directly). just make sure you follow your passion, not just a path.

Posted by: | Jul 8, 2008 5:44:12 PM

Hey Jeff,
I just wanted to thank you, because lately I have been dealing with discouragement and doubt, as a result my confidence is shot. I'm struggling with Organic Chemistry and I think to myself before every exam - if I can't do this well, how am I going to become a great doctor one day? It's so difficult to be sure of something that is so close, yet so far at the same time. Doubt is a terrible monster lurking behind every corner, waiting to attack. Thankfully, your article reminded me why I want to become a doctor in the first place. :-)

Posted by: heather schmidt | Jul 8, 2008 6:45:32 PM

That is a revelation... "it's all about the patients" and is refreshing. Sad to say, I was attending a seminar with a certain specialty (won't mention it)and one of the questions to the audience was "Why did you become a physician?" 70% answered because they wanted a profession that could challenge their intellect and because the money was good. As you can see, the majority did not pick the altruistic answers.

Posted by: dan Furst | Jul 8, 2008 6:53:17 PM

I am not even close to being a medical student; I am trying to get into the nursing program, but medicine is what I have been thinking about for a long time. I am feeling very discouraged because, one, I am a lot older than most med students start. Two, I know that it is going to be very difficult financially and emotionally. I constantly ask myself, do I want to go through all of this or just forget about it. I work in the Operating Room at a hospital, but I'm always the one on the outside looking in wishing that were me performing surgery. I've prayed that I make the right decision.
Congratulations to all of you guys that are making your dreams come true!!! Good luck to all of you. : )

Posted by: | Jul 8, 2008 7:46:56 PM

Just a note to all out there, continue to reflect on this question. Eventually you will come to your own conclusion.

Posted by: bart kulah | Jul 9, 2008 6:30:41 AM

Un mensaje para los médicos de habla hispana: Ahora que soy interna me doy cuenta del gran moustro al que nos enfrentasmos los médicos de la práctica general: salud para nadie, pobreza, un sistema que nos explota como a esclavos, pues ya no tenemos pacientes sino "clientes" y "usuarios" y tenemos que ser "rentables" para una empresa... la salud no importa mucho, no tanto como el dinero...ahora pienso:¿es esto lo que realmente quiero hacer?

Posted by: Angela | Jul 9, 2008 8:41:34 AM

It's really scary to learn that even 3rd year medical students call it quits after all the time & effort spent & to realise that this might happen to me too...but i guess you'll never know if you never try. And i absolutely agree that it doesn't matter what the answer is because ultimately i will be living with it

Posted by: Nalina | Jul 9, 2008 9:04:46 AM

First, i'd like to respond to the nameless post from the discouraged person attempting to enroll in a nursing program. "Its never too late to become what you might have been", says a popular quote, but it really is true. I'm about to start my 2nd year of med school and will be 40 in December. I'd never say this was easy, but it was the right path for me. If you want it bad enough, you can do it! This life is yours and yours alone, do with it what you will, be prepared for the consequences physically, mentally, and emotionally, and be resolute in times of discouragement and self-doubt.

As for the questioning and the original subject of this blog, I agree it is always important to get those "gut checks" regularly: "why am I putting myself through this, what does this material have to do with taking care of patients, etc. I recently did a 2-week rotation in interventional radiology, and it drove home the integration of vascular/visceral organ anatomy, pathology, cancer pharmacology, embryology, and numerous other "-ologies" we are subjected to in med school. Believe me when I say it all becomes important. I had the sense to take some of my books with me, and after 13-hour days, I was hitting the books for a couple of hours before bed. I lost 12 lbs. while I was there.

In the end, we must become the kind of doctor we would want for ourselves and our family. Your patients deserve your very best. They are counting on you in some of the darkest hours of their lives. I can think of no higher honor, no greater responsibility, nor more humbling experience than to be there when they need you. Best of luck with your studies and pursuits. Stay focused and realize that there is a point to all this; it will become readily apparent when you hit the wards.

Posted by: mike tedrick | Jul 9, 2008 9:23:38 AM

I'm so frustrated about exams and results right now, that i think reading this post was really helpful. As a matter of fact, it's all about the patients! Thanks for reminding me.

Posted by: louis | Jul 9, 2008 9:27:00 AM

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