I am a family medicine doctor – but that is only a small part of who I am. Father, husband, photographer, social media guru, writer, singer — these are only a few of the many ways I define myself. But when I am on my deathbed, hopefully many decades from now, and looking back on my life, what will I list as my top accomplishments? What will resonate deep in my heart that I’ve lived a full life? Would it be my career? Actually, yes, this would be partly true. Of course my most satisfying moments will be a legacy of family and children, and I’m happily on that path. I am sure that I won’t find any more joy than surrounding myself with my wife, children and future generations. But regarding a career, I am extremely fortunate that I truly love my job and derive deep satisfaction from my 9-to-5 career. Very few people can say that about their job. Can you? And if you can’t say that, then perhaps you should do what I did – change your career path. It’s never too late.
Becoming a family medicine doctor was a second career for me, a life-changing decision that I made far after my undergraduate years at Columbia University. I never grew up thinking about becoming a doctor. My wonderful parents were very American in their approach to raising their four children – very hands off, letting us all figure out our career paths on our own, no matter how late we were in deciding. I almost wish my parents did have a bit more Chinese “tiger mom” strict parenting style and had guided me with a firmer hand while growing up. But now that’s neither here nor there, and I consider myself a much more well rounded person by becoming a doctor later in life.
My desire to have a career helping people started during my high school days with two pivotal events. The first was my two year stint in Peer Ministry, where I and other students hosted weekend or overnight events and meetings with other teens, from schools across our state of Massachusetts. Our mission was mostly to help other teens cope with typical teenager struggles: parents, relationships, self esteem and the like. During these wonderfully open sessions, I blossomed into a self confident young man, finding deep satisfaction in helping others with their problems.
My second pivotal event occurred during my sophomore year of high school, during a student trip to the poor towns of West Virginia state, filled with old, abandoned coal mines. We helped rebuild homes and also assisted in teaching Bible school to a group of seven year old kids. They were too young to really understand Bible stories, but I had loads of fun dressing up as a cow and crawling around the gymnasium floor, with two dozen adorable kids happily crawling behind me, mooing and ringing their bells. I felt a deep emotional satisfaction bringing joy to those kids, and even right now I can still remember that feeling I had during that all too short week. A child is a miracle of hope and happiness!
Ever since those two pivotal events in my life, I had tried to find a career that could recreate that deep emotional satisfaction from helping others. In high school I enjoyed and excelled at math and science and was considering becoming an engineer (not a doctor). I also was thinking that if I became skilled at these sciences, I could later become a professor and teach others. So I was thrilled that I got into Columbia University’s College of Engineering, and off I went to New York City. New York City was an intense new world for me, but I definitely felt like a “country mouse in the city,” overwhelmed by the city’s intensity. It took me a while to find my groove, and I soon realized that my Columbia College friends were having a lot more fun than I was in Engineering. My liberal arts friends filled their days reading classic books, taking in the theatre, and discussing politics. How much more exciting for me! I decided to switch from the Engineering College to the Liberal Arts College, eventually graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English. I especially loved my senior year, sitting on the great lawn in Central Park and reading Plato and Hunter Thompson in the glorious spring sunlight. It was there at Columbia that I honed my writing skills, mostly focusing on creative writing and drama. I especially loved my senior year when I wrote and acted with a hilarious and talented group of students for a comedy TV show. We called it “The Velveeta Players” because it was so cheesy! (Velveeta is a famous American brand of processed cheese).
I graduated from Columbia with an English degree and great enthusiasm for my future, but I still wasn’t sure which career path was best for me. I still loved the idea of teaching, but I didn’t feel like a master in any subject enough to teach. I loved to write and edit, but even a Columbia grad needed to start entry level in a publishing house, slowly climbing the career ladder. I moved back home, looking for editorial work in Boston, when my identical twin brother volunteered for a sleep research study at Harvard University School of Medicine, spending 35 days and nights there. He made quite a bit of money doing this, and the doctors were thrilled at the chance to perform sleep deprivation tests on identical twins. So I also volunteered, and we both spent 11 days and nights inside their lab, in separate rooms, completely isolated from all time cues from the outside world, with no windows, TV or radio (this was pre-internet). I was literally poked and prodded every couple hours, constantly monitored with machines and blood tests, saliva samples, video cameras, memory tests and mood scales. Every night they glued a dozen electrodes to my scalp and monitored my brain waves. I found out later that they had us on a 22 hour day, thus cutting away 2 hours a day from normal life and flipping our sleep cycles completely in a week. At the end, to reset us back to normal, they kept us upright in a bed, forcing us to stay awake for around 50 hours using any means possible; we played a lot of cards and sang silly songs. It was all quite surreal and strange and fascinating, and it was my first true foray into medicine. All the lab workers were medical students or doctors, and they loved their work and the science. I was hooked on medicine for the first time! But I still wasn’t ready to become a doctor. It took another year or so, after moving to wonderful San Francisco and still struggling to find a decent editing job, that I again found myself in the medical world. This time I was an editor and desktop publisher for a private medical company deep in the foggy cliffs of the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital. Again I was surrounded by doctors and medical students doing fascinating research, loving their work, and getting paid well for it. And finally it clicked: I should become a doctor! Medicine was — and still is — the perfect mixture of my skills and desires: I could help people every day, in truly life-changing ways. And as a family doctor, I would never get bored, even forty years later, as every patient would be a new dilemma, with a new story.
I went back to school part time and aced my premedical classes, volunteering at Shriner’s Hospital for Children and other places to get more experience. I vividly remember my first real test: watching a person get open heart surgery. I’ll never forget the surreal sound of a saw cutting open his rib cage, or the smell of his burning flesh from a cautery gun stopping small bleeding, or looking down into his open chest, watching his heart beating. Many people would just pass out at that moment — but I thought, “wow, this is really cool!” I eventually took the grueling and exhausting MCAT exam and soon got accepted into Saint Louis University’s School of Medicine. I had finally found my calling – and I remain thankful that I pursued this dream. In my life choices, my number one most important decision was asking Joanna to marry me; my second most important was deciding to become a doctor.
Many people ask me why I decided to become a family doctor and not specialize in something like cardiology or neurosurgery. I especially got this question while living in China because almost all doctors specialize there, and there really isn’t even a developed program for primary care doctors in China. Most Chinese people don’t realize that family medicine actually is a specialty, complete with extra training and our own medical exam and certification.
The classic American view of a doctor is of a small town doctor who the community knows and loves dearly, who has delivered generations of babies over their 40 years of practice. A good family doctor is deeply involved in their community’s health, their schools, their public safety. I always loved that classic American image of a doctor, and that’s what I strive for each day in my practice. I see people of all ages, from newborns to the elderly, and I follow them for years. It’s a deeply satisfying career, a true honor to deeply understand a patients’ health and history, and to do all I can to keep them thriving and healthy.