About a month ago, I attended a lunchtime lecture in which the speaker mentioned that a study found the majority of physicians believe their profession is a “calling.” While this figure didn’t entirely surprise me, it was strange that such a significant number of physicians would attach themselves to as loaded a word as calling. What exactly does a calling look like in the 21st century? It certainly retains a sense of the sacred or extraordinary. TV shows, both fictional and real, have explored or leaned heavily upon medicine as something called to. William Osler, the seminal guy doctors quote to other doctors, refers to medicine as a calling. So does Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with terminal cancer before even finishing his training.
As a future doctor, I wonder what exactly the substance of my own calling is. For many, perhaps, the personal statement is a good place to start. In fewer than 5,300 characters, we were asked to summarize and produce our own journey to medicine. The admissions process is rigorous and the application extensive. Many callings must be, in so many characters, recorded there. Unfortunately, my personal statement reads more like a disguised tribute to JD and Turk, two lovable TV characters that probably have more to do with this whole thing than I’d like to admit.
Medical school certainly feels like a place to mature into a calling. It begins with the ritualized putting-on of the white coat and ends with a 2,500-year-old Greek oath. And the education of a medical student is extraordinary in the literal sense of the word. One day of our Doctoring Course is devoted to breaking bad news. We spend hours in the Anatomy lab with men and women who have passed away and yet are teaching us. We learn how to use touch as a tool — for example, an afternoon class devoted to inspection, palpation and auscultation.
A calling seems to entail a lifestyle. Medicine certainly seems to. Long hours, scrubs or a white coat, and nights on-call all make a doctor. Are the sacrifices that medicine asks – of your time, attention, and years of training – the substance of a calling? Is a calling a justification for nights spent working and events missed? I think Osler would disagree. In regards to a calling, he says that the heart is exercised as much as the head. A profession that asks so much of us – whether weekend call or your heart – may not be something simply put aside each day after work.
I’m two months into medical school and really don’t know anything about a calling. We’ve begun studying the cardiovascular system and I really enjoy it – I finally see how the things I learn could be used as a doc. I look forward to volunteering at the Student-Run Free Clinic because I want to listen to a heart or take a blood pressure that’s not my classmate’s. I am excited for clinical rotations next year because I can finally apply some of the knowledge I’ve learned to people outside of myself. There’s nothing mystical in these things.
However, I have so much to experience in medical school, residency and beyond. I haven’t yet delivered a baby or placed a central line. I haven’t yet broken bad news to a family or prescribed medication. I haven’t yet made a mistake that could affect someone’s well-being. Maybe a physician’s calling isn’t some artifact of the admissions process or a quote by Osler, but rather a dynamic, uncomplicated thing – work that is challenging and rewarding. This is not unique to medicine at all, but something I’m looking forward to finding.
Christopher is a first-year student at the University of Michigan Medical Student. He recently completed a post-bac at Scripps College and is interested in Ob/Gyn and palliative care. He enjoys exploring Ann Arbor and eating ice cream.