(MedEd)itorial: Helping Others While Becoming Better Versions of Ourselves

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • I was at a party recently, celebrating with some old college buddies. There I was among my truest friends—and how fortunate to hear how everyone was thriving. Billy was trying to decide if he would buy a half-million dollar home in the city or the suburbs. His wife Jenny was talking about the 250,000 frequent flyer miles she had accumulated, only to be one-upped by Carla, who is a Platinum member after eclipsing the million mile mark. All of the women were pregnant. And ole Jonny couldn’t make the tailgate because his company gave him a 5-day all expense paid getaway to Punta Cana for being their number one sales guy.

    I became disappointed, not with anybody else, but solely with myself. I should have been elated that my closest friends were doing so great. They were growing their families, buying first (and second!) homes, getting promoted. They were carving their niches into the world, throwing down roots and doing things that people in their thirties do.

    But instead, I was feeling bitterness, a feeling I loathe and try to avoid like Yersinia pestis. After 4 years of obtaining a professional degree, I had to beg for a weekend day off to spend with friends. This came in the midst of an 80 hour week. I was mildly exhausted, saddled with debt, with nothing to show for it but some esoteric knowledge, and an hourly rate that pales in comparison to a teenage babysitter.

    I’m behind in life. By my own choice. And at age 15 or 20 or 25, it is something we tell ourselves is no big deal. We’ll make doctor salaries one day, catch up with the world, and ride into the sunset along our successful friends, all driving Jaguars.

    On a single day off breaking up a string of 21 days on, everything can feel futile. Finally, some you-time has arrived, and it is hard to muster the energy to do more than sleep. And negative thoughts spiral through the mind like H. Pylori spiraling through your mucosa.

    “What am I doing with my life?”

    “Is/was this worth it?”

    I went from the top of my class to the bottom of the pecking order. I was destined for success, yet everyone has become more successful than me. We all know that net worth is not a yardstick for success, but I would be lying if I said I’m unaffected by the fact that I work almost twice as much and have a fraction to “show for it,” relative to my non-medical peers.

    But, as I sit with my friends and the clouds clear, I realize that reality isn’t so bad, and begin to see things in perspective. Four months into intern year, I see that even a crappy week is packed with value. I haven’t thrown away these 80 hours; I’ve used them to further my knowledge and become a better doctor. I’ve commiserated and empathized with my colleagues, some of the most interesting and brilliant people I’ve met in my life. Some days are even quite fun, and lead to a much more exciting answer to the question, “What did you do this week?”

    Maybe chasing knowledge and the desire to give selflessly trumps chasing dollars and cents. Or at least, I’ll tell myself that for now. They tell me that there will be light at the end of this tunnel. All I can do is appreciate every moment along the way, as hanging on for future happiness can only serve to make the present an un-happy time.

    I rise on Monday morning to do it all over again.

    My acute pain attending this morning is a rockstar. 70 years young, he’s seen it all, comes to work for fun, and straddles the fine line between brilliance and senility. He said, “You know what we’re going to do today, Brian?”

    “Pull epidurals,” I flatly respond.

    “The lord’s work.” He delivers this line to me 12-40 times over the course of the week in an only half-cynical tone. I can’t exactly tell if he means it religiously or not, but this doesn’t matter. Something about this phrase has hit me…

    It is within my personal capacity to have a tremendously positive and powerful effect on the life of a fellow human in need.

    And I am afforded this opportunity over and over again, every day.

    So, let us be patient, and not forget why we came in today: to help others and become better versions of ourselves while doing so.