Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Good Reasons Not to Go Into Healthcare

Anybody who reads this blog regularly has figured out that I'm something of a medical groupie: I hang out in an ER four hours a week, read a bunch of medical blogs, and often write on medical topics. I'm known as the "medical person" in my immediate family, because I'm the one who likes researching other people's diagnoses and who's comfortable advocating for loved ones with healthcare providers. When I go to my own doctors, I tend to have a pretty good idea of what's going on -- on several occasions, I've made my own correct diagnosis before showing up in the office -- and my medical caregivers treat me like someone who knows what she's talking about.

Gary often teases me about going to medical school; when we watch TV medical shows, I frequently figure out what's wrong with the patients before the TV docs do (although, given the unreality of most TV shows, that probably has more to do with the fact that I'm a writer than with my interest in medicine). So the question naturally arises: "Say, Susan, why didn't you become a doctor or nurse?"

I had this conversation recently with someone in the ER waiting room, a trauma nurse visiting from another state who was waiting for word on a friend. She was impressed that chaplains at my hospital are trained to visit waiting rooms; I told her that I'm in awe of ER nurses, and that I could never do the work. She smiled, shook her head, and said, "Sure you could. All you need is love."

Well, no. You need some other things, too. For instance:

* A good head for math and science. There's a reason I was an English major, okay? I forced myself through AP Calculus in high school, with many tears and headaches, and then abandoned math completely. My science education pretty much ended in tenth grade, when we had a biology teacher who claimed that because bats were the only true flying mammals, they were the only mammals with feathers, at which point the class shook itself out of its stupor and started trying to convince the teacher that no, bats didn't have feathers. Really. No feathers. (We did convince her, but it took a good ten minutes.) I might have been okay at science if I'd had better teachers, but I doubt I ever would have been great at it.

* Physical coordination and fine motor skills. I'm not someone you want trying to start an IV on you, ever. Honest. Trust me on this one.

* A high tolerance for stress. Doctors and nurses are in a field where their mistakes can literally kill people. I couldn't handle that. If I make a mistake on a syllabus, my students will read the wrong chapter. That, I can live with.

* Lots of physical stamina. Twelve-hour shifts? Thirty-six hours on call? No way. Sleep deprivation and I do not get along.

The closest I've ever come to going to med school was attending SUNY's Summer Intensive Latin Program, fondly known as Latin Camp, after my first year of graduate school. (Passing a reading test in Latin or Greek was a requirement of my program, and I'd had no previous exposure to either.) Latin Camp covered two and a half years of college-level Latin in two and a half months. We walked in knowing nothing. Ten weeks later, the final exam was seven hours long and included sight translation from The Aeneid.

On the first day of Latin Camp, we were warned that a) this was probably the most difficult thing we'd ever do and b) the program routinely destroyed marriages and other intimate relationships. We were invited to bring our significant others to class (eight hours a day, five days a week) so they'd see what we were going through. I was living with Gary for the first time that summer; a few weeks into the course, he said plaintively, "I don't understand why you aren't willing to get a B in this course to spend more time with me."

I said, "You don't get it. It's not a choice between getting an A or getting a B. It's a choice between passing or flunking." (I passed, but there were many days when I didn't think I would.)

Latin Camp meant all Latin, all the time. We were in class eight hours a day, and then came home and studied and did homework until we went to sleep. We had the home numbers of all of the instructors, who were -- quite literally -- on 24-hour call. I once called one of the teachers at 2:30 in the morning for help translating Cicero. Two weeks in, Gary offered to program the teachers' numbers into our speed dial (replacing less important things like 911), and I said, "Oh, that's wonderful! Not having to hit all those numbers will save me so much time every night!" He just looked at me. He told me later that this was the point at which, had I been in a cult instead of an academic program, he would have had me kidnapped and deprogrammed.

And then there were the flashcards. I carried a filebox of flashcards with me everywhere. I studied them over meals, on the subway, and as I walked from the subway to class. If they'd been laminated, I'd have studied them in the shower. One morning as I was trudging along the sidewalk with my head bent over my flashcards, I heard a cheerful, "Hi, Susan!" and looked up to see a friend who worked in publishing. "It's so nice to see you! What are you up to this summer?"

"Studying Latin," I said, and burst into tears.

Because, you see, I wasn't very good at Latin. It was hard for me. I was slow. To keep up, to get all the homework done each night (because missing a night's homework was the equivalent of missing a week's work), I stopped sleeping for a while, or at least only slept a few hours a night. I believe it was during this hazy period that my publishing friend greeted me.

Not sleeping turned me into a weeping zombie. I got really bad at Latin. I started flunking our daily quizzes. Finally one of the teachers took me aside and said gently, "Susan, you're doing so badly because you aren't sleeping. We never told you not to sleep. Go home tonight and get some sleep." I went home that night and slept for eighteen hours.

I've often told people that Latin Camp was kind of like medical school, except that instead of dissecting cadavers, we were working on a dead language. But when I made a mistake in Latin Camp -- and I made a lot of them! -- the worst thing that happened was a mangled translation of Cicero or a failed quiz. My mistakes weren't going to kill anybody. They badly damaged my pride, but that's not fatal.

You don't want me trying to start an IV on you even when I'm fully awake. You really don't want me trying to start an IV on you when I'm sleep-deprived. So I'm going to pass on twelve-hour shifts and thirty-six hours on call. I'm perfectly happy being an English professor and volunteer chaplain who hangs out in the ER four hours a week. I like being someone who gets to sit down a lot.

I may be a groupie, but I'm not a wannabe. I know my limits.


  1. Your description of Latin camp reminds me, fondly, of the years Jody spent in film school at USC. The first semester was great, as we both participated in campus life and activities. We were really getting into the awesome number of things there are to do in Los Angeles and at a large university, catching home games in the Olympic coliseum was golden.

    All was bliss, joy, and stress free. Then Jody began editing her first student film. From that point on, Jody was no longer a frequent presence in our apartment. Day and night she toiled on various film projects. Whether she was writing, editing, shooting, doing sound, or doing those things for the students she was TA'ing, she wasn't doing any of those things at home.

    She would frequently spend the night on campus, and more frequently sneak in at 2am for a couple of hours of sleep before running back to campus. I remember going to campus just to visit Jody. I went every day, bringing her food, beverages, and hugs. I don't know how she ever made it through the experience, but she did and I am still amazed.

  2. nota bene:

    Many nurses never,EVER insert an IV, or deal with blood, for that matter.

    Love the post; can only begin to imagine the experience. But will enjoy that imagining with a big grin om my face.

    prima facie

    How's that - beginning and the end in Latin!

  3. "He told me later that this was the point at which, had I been in a cult instead of an academic program, he would have had me kidnapped and deprogrammed."

    I can understand his feelings. I've seen some academic programs that I thought were on the edge of being cults. But seriously, an intensive experience like Latin Camp does rewire your brain in certain ways... what programmers refer to as "larval mode".

  4. Whoa, maybe they should have re-titled Latin Camp to, Welcome to Your Summer of Elleborus :-) {Hope the latin is correct - looked it up]

  5. Most nurses never insert an iv...

    Well, Cathie does, on a very regular basis, and teaches the doctors how to do it (something that seems to get neglected a med school these days) Maybe that's why she vowed never to work in America again after Corpus Christi. Of course, she's only been a nurse 30 something years.

    You've probably gathered, I worship the water she walks on.

  6. My God! Latin Camp sounds great! Seriously, I wish I had 2 weeks to do it an no family obligations.

    I do think people are slightly deranged to go into healthcare. Especially doctors. At least, as a nurse, I have so many options if I get bored or burnt out with what I'm doing. But once your a neurosurgeon, you better like it, cause you're probably not going to leave to "find yourself". And the loans-it's like paying a second mortgage.

  7. I loved this post, Susan! But I do believe you have too little faith... in yourself! You'd be surprised what you could do if you tried. I was once a nursing groupie. Now, I'm a nurse! The reality is, of course, somewhat different. But nonetheless awesome.



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