The other day, I was on my way to the Royal London Hospital to discuss my resignation with the Dean of my Foundation School, when a man going past on a bicycle stopped next to me.
“Are you lost?” he asked, with an accent that I recognised to be Sri Lankan. I turned away from the map and looked at him, and his features confirmed our common heritage.
I explained I was looking for the hospital, and he pointed me in the right direction, but before I could get very far, he began to tell me all about the amazing pastor at his church, who apparently had died, visited hell and heaven, had a chat with Jesus, and come back to earth again. I suppressed a smile as he asked me if I had time to chat, and said I was in a hurry. He then asked me why I was going to the hospital. I obviously didn’t go into my real reasons, but the moment I said the words ‘I’m a doctor’, he looked at me with such awe, as if I were the one taking return journeys in and out of the afterlife.
It’s not an uncommon reaction. Although the medical profession is much less revered now than it was twenty years ago, people are generally still impressed when you tell them you’re a doctor. “Wow! That’s incredible! You must be clever,” they say, or “I couldn’t do what you do.” As for my Asian relatives, particularly the older generations, I represent the ultimate achievement.
When I think about how hard I’m finding it to leave medicine, I can’t help but admit that part of it is losing that massive ego boost. The moment you qualify, you are seen almost universally as intelligent, selfless, noble, caring and respectable. Another bonus is the fact that people have a basic understanding of what it is you actually do – as opposed to the non-vocational folk like my fiancé, whose job description of ‘business consultant in macroeconomics and econometrics’ is vague at best, and downright confusing at worst. I don’t have to justify myself as a good person because my occupation automatically confirms that. I save lives. I help people. I took an oath to devote my life to healing the sick. What kind of person breaks that promise?
The “Bristol Promise”
When I think of how amazing and necessary the work of a doctor really is, it’s hard to validate my existence without it. If I am ever one day shipwrecked on a desert island, I’d have gone from being someone you’d definitely want to keep alive to someone who can be eaten without any great consequence.
The funny thing is, when I step back and look at it objectively, I can see quite clearly that Medicine is not the only ‘noble’ thing to do in the world. Our intricately connected society relies on the collective effort of many, and we all can influence the world around us for the better in our own way. The problem is, these things are not always recognised in the same way that being a doctor is. In this world where money and fame is more celebrated than anything else, medicine is still holding on to respect and value by the tips of its fingers, whilst the actions of good teachers, parents, farmers, legal aid lawyers, emergency service personnel and countless others fall by the wayside.
I used to dream about working as a doctor in Africa or Asia with Médecins Sans Frontières, providing healthcare for the poorest and most vulnerable. When I started to become unhappy in Medicine, this dream was the only thing that kept me going, but I realise now that my desire to be of service had become tainted with selfishness. I wanted to make a point, to show that I am a good person, but there’s something paradoxical in the truth about this: if you do something you hate for the sake of being good, resentment will poison any happiness you gain until you can’t do it any more. But if you use something you love to do something good, the happiness you gain will motivate you to keep doing it, and the good you do will be tenfold. The line between selfishness and selflessness suddenly doesn’t seem so clear.
These next few months are not going to be easy, I know. I have already experienced the sneers and sometimes just plain disbelief that I would ever dream of giving up Medicine, and I’ve barely told anyone in my family about it yet. I dread my next trip to Sri Lanka, as there the judgement will be even more severe.
However, I am coming round the idea that my self worth isn’t quite so dependent on Medicine as previously thought. As my best friend once said, “I don’t love you because you’re a doctor – I love you because you’re loyal and kind, and always there for me.”
I am still determined to help people, but perhaps being obsessed with the goal is actually more of a hindrance than a help. After all, my literary inspiration, Jane Austen, didn’t write her books with a view to helping me, but she has. Her books have been my joy and comfort in many a dark moment – one of many unexpected echoes of her quiet, modest life that she will never know. I’m sure if she were alive today, she would tell me to chill out and take myself less seriously, albeit n more Austen-y language!
Perhaps she’d tell even me to listen to Bertrand Russell, who I believe once said:
“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”