I grew up humoring the idea of becoming a doctor; the associated prestige and security certainly had its allure. However, by high school, blood and guts and human suffering had proved to be too much for me to stomach, so I crossed that career off my list. Ironically, as I entered into my college years, the number of people around me pursuing medicine only seemed to multiply. “Pre-med culture” has been stereotyped as many things, among them: cut-throat, rigorous and structured. After watching many people try — and fail — to fulfill the demands of this career path, I began to believe that the characteristics American medical schools valued most were ruthlessness and drive, rather than compassion and empathy.
This past summer, I did research in New Haven alongside many of my pre-med friends. I was immediately enveloped by conversations about shadowing doctors and hospital volunteer hours, biochemistry and authoring publications. Stuck in that bubble, I envisioned long hours in the basement of the med school, library trips and a slow crawl through the hot summer months. When my younger brother was suddenly admitted into the ICU, that illusion was shattered.
After receiving the news in the second week of June, I booked a midnight train home, returning to Northern Virginia only a week after leaving it. I sat in the hospital room for upwards of 10 hours a day, watching as doctors stuck tubes and needles into my brother’s skin, looking on in anguish as his blood was circulated through a dialysis machine, the size of a washing machine, waiting for the creatinine levels in his blood to fall back to normal. The countless hours I spent observing doctors on the hospital room sofa were juxtaposed with the many times I had heard my premed friends express their eagerness to peek into an operating room. The difference, now, was that my family and I wished we could have been anywhere but there. Hospital volunteers — how many of them pre-meds, I wondered — popped in and out, asking about our favorite sports teams and foods, questions that were the last thing on our minds. Nurses, technicians and nephrologists bounced in and out, each tapping out after their assigned shifts, saying goodbye to us with pitying smiles, as they jetted off on summer trips or rotations elsewhere. We clenched our smiles and stayed.
One of the most emotional and infuriating experiences for us, however, occurred a week after Austin had been admitted to the hospital, when his condition had finally began to take a turn for the better. I stopped bringing changes of clothes for him in bulk; I began slowly moving his belongings home every night. Our family began to whisper the word “discharge” to each other, in an act of daring, foolish hope. On a sunny morning soon after, one of Austin’s charge doctors marched in, brashly informing us that he thought Austin might have a rare chronic autoimmune condition. As such, he needed to do a risky, invasive procedure on him first thing in the morning. Left alone, Austin and I could only Google this new potential diagnosis with half-closed eyes, terrified. Our family pushed back, deciding that the complications weren’t worth the miniscule chance of him having the condition in question. It wasn’t until weeks later that the doctor admitted to us that the likelihood of Austin having this condition was quite low, after many hours of fear and tears and panic had already transpired.
After pushing past my initial anger, I began to see that this doctor was a natural product of the American medical system; indeed, he had been vetted for his cold-cutting discernment and intellect. But despite his training, he had failed my family in many regards. The great power imbalance in the physician-patient relationship, and the asymmetry of information that accrues, as a result, is dangerous and often unfair. Like many of his peers, he didn’t recognize that doctors aren’t just responsible for their patients’ physical needs, but also their emotional needs. He didn’t think about the distress that his careless diagnosis had caused my family, nor the great risk that the biopsy procedure would pose. Agreeing to it would mean that Austin could not do strenuous physical activity for weeks afterwards. We felt like monkeys in a zoo, bacteria cultures to be prodded and injected with at the doctors’ will.
The appeal of science, for many, is fascination: at how the body works, at discovery and attaining higher success rates. But in this process, humanity is left behind. The lives at your hands are forgotten or ignored, a process that begins from the moment people become pre-med.
My brother couldn’t leave the hospital for nearly two weeks. He couldn’t shower, ate nothing but hospital food and was woken up around 4 a.m. each day by nurses drawing his blood. He missed the last week of his junior year of high school, including every final exam and party — and there was nothing that he could do about it.
But it wasn’t just him; my family and I were there too, huddled on the cold hospital room sofa, doing Google searches on rare conditions, glancing at my brother with fear and worry, staring out the window — wondering how many more days we would be stuck in that room with him.
To my pre-med friends: Don’t forget that while you add volunteer hours to your resume, that you will be spending the rest of your life serving those who suffer. You will have moments of pride and accomplishments to boast, as well as lucrative careers that enable you to take sporadic vacations. But in the midst of all that, remember the patients that remain trapped in those hospital rooms day after day, feeling weak and helpless.
To those who wish to be doctors because they have spent significant time worrying about the health of family or friends or even themselves, who want to dedicate their careers to aiding others — I commend you.
But to my friends who want to doctors because they don’t know what else to do, who are choosing this path because they’ve always been “good at STEM,” who are motivated by the structure and security, who see success and money and respect above all else — please, I beg you to reconsider.
These are real lives in your hands, many of whom you could irreparably alter. Your patients will be smart people who did their best to treat their bodies well, who happened upon a bout of bad luck. They were caught off guard, in the middle of the night, diagnosed with conditions they have never heard of, cannot even pronounce, stolen away from a healthy lifestyle and dreams of their future. No matter how ruthless or driven or intellectually curious you may be, I beg of you to first check on your compassion — your capacity to save lives is equal to your capacity to destroy them.
Audrey Huang is a junior in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .