Everyone knows becoming a doctor takes a long time. We sign up for that when we start taking medschool prerequisites in college and studying for the MCAT. What you can’t know when you sign up is that you will enter medicine young and emerge older but sometimes minimally changed, but the world will have changed, a lot. Preparing for a career in medicine is preparing to traverse the wormhole of medicine.
A wormhole may connect extremely long distances such as a billion light years or more; short distances such as a few meters; different universes; and/or different points in time. This is proposed in Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, where the combination of space and time into a single spacetime continuum could theoretically allow one to traverse both space and time using a wormhole with the correct conditions.
Note, different points in time…. Let me explain.
When I started studying medicine I was around 19 years old in undergrad. Friends were generally the same ones from high school and a few from college, parents were young at late 40s, hobbies were varied and I was really still a teenager in many ways. That’s when I entered the wormhole.
After 2 years of hard studying undergrad, 1 year of grad school debating medicine, 4 years medical school and 5 years of residency training, all spanning 4 cities, I emerged. Twelve years of devotion to medicine passed and I finally had some time to notice the world around me.
By comparison, my friends outside of medicine were mostly engineers. They graduated from college then lived in large cities while earning tons of disposable income, single, with little to no education debt. They traveled, partied, got promoted, married, had kids. When we all met up every year or so, they had so many things to talk about other than engineering. Despite all being engineers, they almost never talked about careers. I heard stories about living as young intelligent well payed professionals.
Every so often I would work in a medical story. I’m a decent storyteller, but the tales fell on deaf ears. They just didn’t get it. From their standpoint, there was no context to the jokes or incredible experiences. So I was forced to tell the “good ol days” stories about when we were in college and high school. Those are great for a laugh, but the luster fades the third and fourth recital.
What made me stop and think about time lost to medicine was something my friends told me one night over beers. They said “How do you remember every detail of all these stories from so long ago?”. I said, “I guess I just have a good memory.”
But my memory wasn’t the reason. I simply had a lack of new experience outside of medicine. Sure, there were some great times in medical school and residency, some of the best. However, there was a missed opportunity for young adulthood experiences fresh out of college with minimal responsibility and some good pocket money. Could I make up for it? Not really, once out of medical training, the work begins, children come and your career advancement starts. This is the realization I came to: as a physician, one cannot make up for lost young adulthood.
There was more to the wormhole than missing experience, time had passed quickly. My parents were older now 60s and my dad had a heart condition and was soon to be diagnosed with stage III melanoma. They aged almost completely without me noticing. I remember starting medical school and they had full heads of dark hair and looked as they did when I was 10. Now, dad was half gray and receding with a completely white close cropped beard. Mom had wrinkles, she never had wrinkles that I remember. My sister was a practicing architect, freelance artist and activist. She just started undergrad right?
The 3 year old springer spaniel we had when I left was dead a few years and the chocolate lab puppy was old, grey speckled, fat, slow and limped from an old ankle injury.
Stepping through the wormhole is stepping through and connecting 2 points in time; before and after medical training. I was older, but I didn’t feel older. I had matured as a physician, but not very much as an adult. I had set aside time during my studies to meet the right person and get married. (I knew she was amazing and I’m glad I didn’t put that part off) But the rest of young adulthood?? I just didn’t exist, and I will never get it back.
I don’t regret medicine, but I think its important to be aware of what you are giving up to be really good at one thing. Show me a tumor and I will tell you the best way to use radiation to palliate, cure or delay growth. But if you want to hear some non-medical stories about my young adulthood, we will talk about high school, some college and then jump to my mid-thirties kids, work (boring) stories. When my children are old enough to ask about my job and why I chose it, they will get the good and the bad.
What I have learned from the loss of time is that I won’t let it happen again. When my partner resigned last year and my patient load skyrocketed I started feeling time slipping away again. I was being drawn into the hole by it’s gravity, again! Instead of succumbing, immediate changes were made to slow down, never crossing the event horizon. I cut back, requested more physician help, took half days, spent more time with family, played more guitar and started mindfulness meditation to live more in the moment. I’ll never get those 20s and early 30s back, but I’ll be learning from then nonetheless.