The Price of Medicine
I have a friend who is a doctor. Or at least, I did.
John and I went through undergrad together. We suffered through organic chemistry. We took herpetology, and spent our exam times chasing two-foot-long salamanders around the room. On Tuesdays, we played racquetball until we were so hungry we could barely walk, then we went to Little Caesars, bought two large pizzas, and ate every bite. We stressed about finals, stressed about girls, and stressed like crazy about getting into medical school.
After four years though, both of us were accepted.
I dropped out. John is a doctor now. Has been for over a decade.
John was popular in high school and college. He was a football jock and all that, but that wasn’t why we liked him. John was the best person we knew. He was friendly and kind to everyone. He wasn’t a sap, but he treated everybody, whether he knew them or not, as if they were valuable.
That’s a rare quality.
We parted ways when I dropped out of med school. Not because of a disagreement, but simply because medical school is consuming. John worked and studied around the clock, spending his days (and often his nights) in the hospitals and classes, or at home, poring over books. He didn’t see his friends very much.
Years later, he asked me to be in his wedding. Thanks to sudden diabetes, he’d had to lose weight, but somehow he looked heavier. More careworn than I’d seen him.
Before the wedding rehearsal, he and I were standing in the church foyer while a guy blasted away with bagpipes on the front steps. Even through the thick oak doors, it was deafening. John saw me screwing up my face at the sound, and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
I asked, “If you throw a banjo and a set of bagpipes off the roof of a ten-story building, which one hits the ground first?”
“Who gives a s***.” I said flatly.
That was the only time I saw him laugh that weekend.
I know quite a few doctors, but what I saw in John went beyond the weight of responsibility. Months later, he and I were talking on the phone. Or maybe it was years later, I don’t remember. But I do remember what he said to me. The conversation had drifted to medicine, as it usually did, and after a time, I had wondered gently about the changes I’d seen in him. He explained it thusly:
“So I’m the attending doctor in the ICU after two shifts. My third shift is starting at midnight. I have twelve patients on ventilators, who spend all night taking turns trying to die on me. Then I hear the trauma alarm going off. (Meaning another critical patient will be arriving soon.)” He sighed. “And it goes through my head that it would be easier if they just died on the way in.”
We’ve talked occasionally since then, but I haven’t seen John in a long time. I hope he’s alright.
The foundation of medicine isn’t technology, or intelligence, or study. It’s compassion. John is a compassionate person. He always has been, and always will be. But his journey through medicine has cost him more than it should have.
Fortunately, many doctors are not affected this way. But most of us on the outside have no idea what it takes to become a physician. I’m telling John’s story because it impacted him in a way more obvious than most.
Doctors have a certain reputation among the rest of us. We assume they drive fancy cars and wear expensive penny loafers, even when it's muddy. We assume they say things like “Do you concur?” and go golfing eight days a week.
But assumptions rarely play out.
According to Matt Carter, a student loan expert, the average doctor graduates medical school with over $232,000 in medical school debt¹. And, thanks to the interest, it takes at least 13 years to pay it off.
But often, the true cost of something isn’t measured in dollars. After all, money is replaceable. Time, on the other hand, is not. The decade between age 20 and 30 is a wonderful period for many of us. We have our youthful strength and energy, and a bit of adult knowledge that we use to explore, to enjoy, to live to the hilt. Through medical school and various internships and residencies, doctors basically trade away that decade to learn how to take care of the rest of us. I know doctors who got used to working 70 hours straight by occasionally catching 15 minutes of sleep in the morgue with the dead bodies. I’ve also been told that, during residency, “You come to think of crackers and ketchup as a balanced meal.”
I’m not asking you to feel sorry for your doctor. They are professionals who knew the demands of the life they were choosing. I’m only asking you this: When you talk to your doctor, you might see a nice pair of penny loafers, and they might look expensive…
But just consider that you may not know what they really cost.
Doctors, thank you for everything you do for us.
Transonic Systems Inc.
The Measure of Better Results