This med student fought hard against her desire to become a doctor because she feared it also meant becoming her parents.
By Lauren Visser
When I was little, I dreamed of becoming a doctor. As the daughter of two primary care physicians who are in practice together, I have been exposed to medicine for as long as I can remember. I used to go to my parents’ office after school and listen to my younger brother’s heartbeat with a stethoscope and marvel at the instruments in the lab and the thousands of charts in the back rooms. Medicine was magical to me. I wanted to be just like my parents, wearing a white coat with a stethoscope draped around my neck and a hospital badge clipped to my front pocket.
However, as a teenager, it seemed to me that becoming a doctor simply meant becoming my parents, and I wanted more than that. I wanted to define my future by my rules, not by some precedent my parents had set. So by the time I started college, I was dead-set against pursuing medicine. I was convinced that there was a more suitable path for me.
So I took courses ranging from chemistry to philosophy to environmental studies and even studied abroad for a semester in Italy, but none of these seemed to light a fire of passion in my heart. I wondered if I would ever find the course of study that best suited me, until, during my time abroad, I came to a startling realization. Perhaps it was the thousands of miles that separated me from my family or feeling isolated in a foreign culture, but during the five months I spent in Italy, I finally accepted the reality that had haunted me since the day I abandoned my dream of becoming a doctor. I had been fighting an uphill battle against what I was designed to become. What I had thought was the desire to be different from my parents, was actually a desire to be challenged, to ask questions, to go beyond what was expected of me. It was like finally looking through a window when all the time I had been looking in a mirror: I was so consumed by my own desire to forge my own path that I had barely paid attention to all the signs around me. When I told my parents I had decided to pursue medicine, they were delighted, but not surprised. “We always knew that’s what you were meant to do,” they said.
The following summer, I joined my dad on a medical mission to the Dominican Republic, where I worked on the mobile clinic team as the lab technician. Every night after dinner, the team director would read off the daily statistics: number of patients served, number of prescriptions delivered, number of lives saved in surgeries performed by the team at the hospital.
One evening, my dad said, “Lauren, it’s not about the numbers. Don’t forget that. Even if I only saw one patient a day, this whole trip would be worth it.”
While it was inspiring to hear those numbers, if you asked me about any of those things today, I couldn’t give you any details. I would tell you instead about my father on that trip. Though I had spent my childhood wandering the halls of his practice, I had never been able to observe him one-on-one with patients in such an intimate setting before. I knew him as a father, but not as a doctor – until this trip.
I remember a young single mother who had brought her three-year-old with her to clinic. She was pregnant and worried about how she was going to handle taking care of two children on her own. I watched as she sat on the covered patio in an old discolored plastic chair and slowly told her story, through an interpreter, to my father. He never cut her off or pressed her for “medically important” information. He simply listened. She turned out to be healthy and doing well, so my dad gave her a prescription for pre-natal vitamins and a referral to get an ultrasound. He took her three-year-old in his lap as he listened to his heart and lungs and let him play with his stethoscope. The little boy got his parasite medicine and vitamins and was sent on his way with his mom. But I’m sure it wasn’t the medical treatment that the woman will remember. She’ll remember, as I do, the way my dad patiently listened and counseled her despite the crowd of people in the waiting room.
I finally saw what it meant to be a doctor, and I wanted to be the kind of doctor my father is.
He didn’t join that team to win recognition but because he took an oath to care for patients. He listens to people’s health concerns and their worries not only at work, but also in line at the grocery store, at church, and even while relaxing at the beach because being a physician is not his job, it is his life. Some little kids dream of becoming doctors, but I dream of becoming just like my dad. I want to have relationships with patients and respect them as people, not as medical problems to be solved. I want to be a source of comfort for them, a beacon of hope, and, most of all, a friend that they can trust.
Lauren Visser is a second-year medical student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is on the executive board of the Family Medicine Interest Group and a North Carolina Family Medicine Scholar. She has a strong interest in primary care and working to improve health care access for underserved populations.