Wednesday, November 12, 2014

good is better than perfect

Sometimes, this work gives one pause. Okay, not sometimes. All the time. But for different reasons, at different times. Sometimes, it's the work itself, sometimes it's the system in which we practice, and sometimes it's the repercussions of the work.

There are some matters which I find difficult to articulate for two distinct reasons- 1) it is so specifically personal that I am not sure I should be sharing it and 2) I have an irrational fear of being misunderstood- irrational because who cares and also hardly a handful of people read these words and most of them are fairly non-judgmental types.

For several years in this blog's history, actually, I wrote in an abstract away about this Goal I had, this big dream I was pursuing, and I knew, even as I was writing about it, that it would be a letdown when it was discovered that all I wanted to was become a physician. In some ways, the most unoriginal idea a brown nerd could dream up, really.

So I have no coolness factor. Oh well. That is no surprise, that has never been my area of expertise. What I did have was a deep certainty that I was doing the right thing for myself. And it is a good thing I did, because it was a long play. I mean, a longgggg play. Studying for the MCAT (while working full-time), going to medical school and 'carelessly' tossing away many of my savings in the process, three years of indentured servitude as a resident, all to get to this point.

All for the privilege of treating cancer patients. And it is a privilege. I can say that without a doubt, without reservation, and there are days when my rib cage feels like it is going to crack wide open from how full I feel from the satisfaction of this work. That is true.

But here is what is also true. This choice has cost me. It has cost me money, that is probably the most trivial of the losses. It has cost me friends. It has cost me family. It has cost me my own health. These are things we joke around about as physicians. But these are very real losses, and they exact a price that cannot be quantified and cannot be recovered.

Many, many years ago, I was still trying to figure all of this out, what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I knew I was not supposed to be working in a chemistry lab synthesizing molecules someone else told me to make. So I thought what I needed to do was get my PhD in chemistry. I started working on a research project in my spare time, after work and on the weekends. And I will never forget that my friend K casually remarked that she had stopped inviting me to things because she figured I would be too busy. It crushed me. I suddenly felt like I was really missing out, like the sacrifice of trying to pursue my PhD was too great to give up happy hours and weekends with my friends.

I trusted that feeling, I trust it still. When I decided to go to medical school, I kept giving things up, one by one, and it was frighteningly easy to do. Some of it is by design. Medical school is a wrecking ball, is a cult, is the Borg, is a hurricane. Medicine is a tidal wave that sweeps you out to sea, you drown and after a while, you learn to breathe under water, that is what I think.

This past weekend, after a particularly taxing week that made me question my stamina to complete fellowship and come out of it a competent oncologist, out of the blue, two friends of mine from the east coast texted me. They were drunk at a pub crawl. An annual pub crawl, a pub crawl I used to attend with them, many a year ago. They were planning an impromptu trip to New Orleans, and did I want to come?

Yes! I wanted to go. I missed them. I missed the outside world. My patients make me miss the outside world when I talk to them, and they tell me about their trips and their family and their dogs and their hobbies. They remind me of all the things I have set aside. So I wanted to go, and I cheerfully suggested February, when I had the sort of schedule that would allow me to take some time off.

My friends thought this was funny, and pointed out they were thinking more like next weekend. I had forgotten the meaning of impromptu, see. There is little in the way of spontaneity when you are a fellow. You have a schedule and you have responsibilities. They suggested December, and I thought about the patients who were scheduled to see me then. I am their doctor. I have obligations.

Everyone has obligations. Children. Pets. Mortgages. Everyone has them in some form. This time, I was not crushed when I told my friends I could not escape to the Big Easy on a moment's notice. I was sad. Because I miss my friends, and in an ideal world, I would love to be able to take off with that kind of spontaneity. But dreams have a price, and I knew, right from the start, that I would have to pay. So I have. And I will not apologize for that. As I have stated, there is nothing I want to do more. If I won the lottery today, I would do exactly this job. It is an obligation, this work, but it is a responsibility I have wanted, a purpose I have craved. I cannot pretend to regret that.

But what I will do is try. Not try 'to have it all' because I think that is a dream that we are fed to feel constantly like we are not succeeding, like we are something less. There is no having it all, there is no balance. Life is too messy for that, and chemistry has taught me that equilibrium is a dynamic state, that we are constantly being pushed in one or other direction away, but there is a pull, and it is not a pull away from the center. So I am just going to try not to let go of everything, not to be quite so weightless. I am going to try to find that steady state.

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