The Heart That Holds the Stethoscope

The path to becoming a doctor has the potential to be incredibly rewarding, but with the obstacles and grueling work along the way, it is important to analyze your motivations for pursuing a career in medicine before dedicating your life to it.

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By Chuer Zhong

“If you want to be rich, study hard and become a doctor!” This is a message that has been instilled in many students since childhood. Some families push their children from a young age to pursue a medical career for the prestige and six-figure salary. However, this is an oversimplified and glorified view of the medical field that often ignores the grueling medical training and sacrifices made behind the scenes. The experiences of current students and medical professionals tell the true story of what the path to becoming a doctor looks like.

Beginning even before professional studies, some prospective students feel a genuine passion for the medical field. Sophomore Alexa Seltzer hopes to go into neurosurgery in the future and shared her passion for the subject. “I [want to] help people with neuropsychiatric disorders and see how it can be approached from a new, modern aspect, which is the surgical part with deep brain stimulation,” Seltzer explained. This technology has been shown to treat cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder, which is what Seltzer hopes to explore in the future. Despite the grueling hours and emotional strain of working with ill patients, Seltzer contended that it is a justifiable sacrifice. “It is worth it in the end if you want to make a difference,” Seltzer said.

Likewise, sophomore Nabila Iqbal shares a similar sentiment and is considering pursuing a career in cancer research. Iqbal explained that her family’s medical history of cancer has left a permanent impact on her life, resulting in a passion for oncology. “My mom had breast cancer four years ago and one of my cousins had brain cancer, and she sadly passed away [...] I didn’t even know her, but it was sad. My family’s sad every time we mention it, and it just makes me [want to] go into that area more.” However, Iqbal mentioned how the journey will bring personal challenges. “I tend to overthink, and doctors have to face losing patients. And if you overthink, that could be very mentally tolling,” Iqbal reflected.

However, being passionate about a subject in high school does not necessarily indicate a successful career in the field. Stuyvesant alum AY explained, “Biology was my favorite subject in high school, and I loved learning about human physiology.” After beginning college as a pre-med and shadowing a dentist, she began pursuing dentistry. Now in her second year of dental school, AY questions if it was the right decision. She said, “Another hardship is seeing all your friends have jobs and adult lives and travel while you suffer in school with no money and only continue to sink deeper into debt. For me, the greatest difficulty isn’t school—everything is manageable—but knowing that I’m working toward a career that I wasn’t ever really passionate about.” AY admitted that she felt obligated to meet her parents’ expectations when deciding on a career path: “Becoming a doctor is extremely glorified, especially to immigrant parents who just want the best for their children.” Additionally, Stuyvesant’s competitive environment made her feel like she needed to maintain a certain level of prestige. In hindsight, AY reflected, “Six years after graduating high school, my priorities have definitely changed.” AY has always enjoyed drawing and working with her hands, which is what led her to choose dentistry. However, she wishes she had spent more time exploring her interests. AY said, “If I could go back in time, I would probably skip college altogether and pursue becoming a tattoo artist.” To younger students who are conflicted about what they want to do in the future, AY said, “There is no shame in taking time for yourself to discover other interests and career options.”

On the other hand, Stuyvesant alum Tracy Tse (‘16), now a third-year optometry student at SUNY College of Optometry, had the opposite experience. Tse said, “I explored many careers while I was in undergrad, but I was disillusioned by how machine-like the pre-med track seemed to be.” However, after taking an opportunity to shadow an optometrist in practice, Tse took on a different perspective. “They viewed optometry and medicine as not just a way to treat disease or provide a glasses prescription, but also as an opportunity to learn more about their patients’ lives, educate their patients about their conditions, and make a difference in their patients’ everyday life,” Tse said. This experience helped her realize how pursuing optometry would allow her to connect with people, which aligned with her passion for helping her community. Despite the challenges of a long schedule packed with classes and lab work, Tse is confident that she has found the perfect career fit for her. “The few times I’ve wondered whether optometry school was worth it, I just simply reminded myself of my ‘why,’ and it never fails to motivate me,” Tse said.

Sophomore Sophie Zhou’s mother, Dr. Li Evelyn Yang, M.D., is a nephrologist, or a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating kidney diseases. She echoed AY’s sentiment about the immense sacrifices involved in becoming a doctor. “There’s this pressure that you need to be the best of the best […] It used to be no sleep or so for 24 hours, sometimes even 48 hours,” Dr. Yang said. Encouraging medical students to neglect their own health in order to prioritize the health of others affects not only the students but also the patients they treat. “If you’re sleep deprived for a certain time, you can make mistakes, which is especially dangerous if you’re working with patients,” Dr. Yang explained.

Though many students interested in medicine immediately fantasize about becoming doctors, it is important to keep in mind that this is only one of many potential professional routes. “[There are] a lot of available careers in the medical field. For example, you can work for the government. They hire a lot of people actually, for organizations like the [Food and Drug Administration]. In some government agencies or pharmaceutical companies, they also hire a lot of medical doctors to be on the board to review data,” Dr. Yang said. Additionally, the skills you learn in a different medical career often overlap with the skills required for doctors, which means that even if you do change your mind later on, it will not be too late. Before becoming a nephrologist, Dr. Yang was initially a physiologist, or a medical scientist specializing in how living organisms function. “At that time, I didn’t really have this urge to, you know, just take care of one patient at a time. I was interested in going into a field where I could do some research and [really see how] medicine can change people’s lives from a broader perspective,” Dr. Yang expressed. Though she did eventually change careers, Dr. Yang still found her time as a physiologist immensely valuable: “As medicine evolves, I really appreciate what we learned from the risks of medical research and apply that knowledge into clinical and patient care.”

Sophomore Duncan Park’s mother, Dr. Sandra Park, M.D., is a psychiatrist. Like Dr. Yang, she acknowledged the level of commitment you sign up for when enrolling in residency: “You have to be on call a lot, so you have long hours.” Fortunately, residency programs are starting to implement stricter regulations on the working conditions of residents. The current regulations set forward by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education include a maximum of 80 duty hours per week, 10 hours of rest between duty periods, and a limit of 24 hours of continuous duty. Dr. Park highlighted how beneficial the ample hands-on experience of residency was: “You learn a lot by seeing a lot of patients, and that’s how you [really] learn the practice of psychiatry and medicine.”

The value you derive from medical training ultimately depends on a variety of factors, such as your motivations for going into the field, personal and professional strengths, and your priorities in your career and life. It is valuable to take the time to understand what you truly want, as opposed to being influenced by your family, peers, or the appeal of prestige. Tse concluded, “If, after all that exploring, you still find yourself in healthcare, we will be happy to welcome you to our profession.”