I was thirteen years old when I decided that I wanted to become a doctor. I was studying at a school where students were encouraged to think early about their possible future profession, and I remember being told about a two-day ‘Young Doctors’ course for those interested by the idea of medicine. Curious, I attended. And it was there that I became convinced that I wanted to be a physician. Specifically, it was during a medical ethics session in which I was asked to role play a doctor talking to a mother who did not want her ailing son to receive a blood transfusion because they were Jehovah’s witnesses. I do not remember being particularly convincing, but sat across from a fellow young teenager talking about questions fundamental to life, death, and the human experience, I was inspired. It seemed evident to me that medicine would offer me the chance to cut away the triviality of much of daily life and bring me closer to the kinds of questions – always big, sometimes daunting, often with no clear answers – that to me make existence meaningful. Steadfast in this conviction, I set off on the path that would lead me to medical school.
Fast forward a few years to my now medical student self, and I have been struggling somewhat more with my commitment to medicine. I grow easily irritable when I see doctors afforded no more than one or two minutes with each patient during ward rounds. Frustration takes over when people are treated as body parts rather than whole human beings with rich lives that stretch immensely beyond malfunctioning proteins or worn-out organs. When a patient is sent home to dreadful living conditions because their blood work now looks fine, I feel like giving up. Some days, I look back and I ask myself whether I was naïve to think that medicine would be make space for humanity more so than plumbing or dosing away disease.
I have felt stuck. Where does one go from here? Is there anything I can do?
Much quiet reflection and perhaps more than my fair share of loud complaining have brought me reprieve, if no perfect solutions. The reality is that today’s modern – Western – medicine is in many places and at many times time-pressured, resource-constrained and concerned principally with the elimination of disease above all other objectives. Though I personally believe that elements of this are problematic, whilst standing in the waiting room of systematic change to the profession, I try to focus in on what I can do to keep my purpose and meaning in medicine not only alive, but thriving.
Over the past year I have realised that interdisciplinarity is at least part of my personal answer. When I think back to that medical ethics session with my now twenty-four-year-old eyes, I realise that much of my draw to medicine was clearly rooted in philosophy; debates trying to grasp at right and wrong or what to do, as playing out in critical real-life scenarios. This interest burns in me over ten years later, when I realise more clearly than ever that medics and philosophers absolutely confront many of the same great issues that life offers – or rather imposes on – us humans. Issues of life and mortality, knowledge and judgement, joy and suffering, to name but a few. Parallel to this, I try to temper my frustrations with some of medical practice’s current shortcomings with my belief that better health and wellbeing for all are inseparable from social, economic, and political change. And so, I regularly step into my social scientist and activist shoes to campaign for changes I believe will protect and preserve the health of my patients, perhaps even before they get sick. I am convinced that this is not only possible, but highly appropriate for a medical professional in-the-making. Finally, in those unavoidable moments of tragedy where catastrophe strikes the always undeserving patient, it is in the salve of the written word that I find my own healing. To my mind, there exists nothing like the tools of art – in all its forms – to soothe and accompany that which science cannot always reach.
The day-to-day of medicine remains often dry, and wrapped up in complex scientific jargon, systematised treatment plans and sometimes inflexible paradigms. But there exists still – I hope and believe – a chance to take a step back, open a window, and let the light of new perspectives shine onto the otherwise cold and clinical. Then, to my mind, does medicine flourish. Then, does one have a chance to get to know its soul.