Monday, October 29, 2007

Why I'm Not A Doctor ...

"Wow, you once thought of going into medicine! That's fascinating. Whatever happened -- the MCAT? (It's stopped more than one would-be doctor in his/her tracks.) Have you ever thought of going into medical writing? From what I hear it's a lucrative specialty field," commented an Anon on my last post.

Medicine is a long way from what I do for a living and a lot of people have no idea that I was once pre-med. So, hey, why not write a post about how I didn't end up in a white coat with a stethescope around my neck?

I remember, at a rather young age, that I wanted to be a doctor. My cousin Lora was going to be my nurse. (Lora, actually, became a nurse.) There was no huge precipitating event that made me want to be a doctor; it just seemed like a good idea. I remember having a yellow plastic doctor's bag filled with the usual doctor swag. I remember telling my grandmother that she could stay at my hospital for free. And at that age, there were only so many answers to, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I wasn't about to choose something like a secretary. Hell no. I always aimed high. Doctor. Yup, that's for me. And hey, they make a lot of money. So much the better.

And then, a few years on, I remember hearing my parents talk about their lawyer billing $125 an hour. I'd never heard of such a thing. And right then, I decided I should be a lawyer, because I very much liked the idea of making $125 an hour. I never bothered to understand that what lawyers bill and what lawyers earn are not the same thing. Whatever. It sounded like an exorbitant amount of money. Lawyer. OK, then.

But the idea of medicine kept poking me in the brain. And I became more and more aware of cancer (or maybe cancer was in the news more and more), and I decided that I would go into oncology research.

That's right: I was going to find the cure for cancer. As Daniel Burnham said, "Make no small plans." Or was it Machiavelli?

My junior year of high school, I doubled up on science and took Anatomy and Physics. I loved both of my teachers. Mr. Wilkinson taught Anatomy. Mr. Wichern taught Physics. For me, Anatomy was easy, Physics was hard. Or maybe I was just interested in Anatomy and disinterested in Physics. In any event, I soaked up Anatomy like a surgical sponge. All the muscles, all the bones. I still remember a lot of it.

But Physics? Bah. Mind you, Mr. Wichern was a great teacher. He made Physics fun. He had silly names for the labs, like the "Greasy Chicken on Teflon Lab, Bucky" or the "Walkin' Like a Farmer Lab, Bucky." Every lab ended with "Bucky." He explained why. I've since forgotten. Someone named Bucky was involved.

The final exam for Physics was to launch a spring and get it to land within a defined circle on the floor. The idea was that we were supposed to calculate the trajectory and how much tension to apply to the spring to figure out how far it had to travel to land within the circle. Or, we could just eyeball it. Either way. It didn't matter. If the spring landed in the circle, we'd get an A.

I did not get an A.

But I loved Anatomy. Naturally, my lazy ass is a pretty big fan of anything that comes so easily. But it was more than the decided lack of effort I needed to expend that attracted me to the science. It truly fascinated me. I've always loved understanding how things work. Remember those little films that Mr. Rogers used to show, like, "How Crayons Are Made"? Loved those.

So when I was a senior, I took Biology II, an AP class, thinking I could possibly test out of some bio in college (except that my lab partner, Paul, in Bio II was a total slacker and it was way more fun to goof off with him than to be a serious student, so my plan to actually learn anything that year pretty much went out the window). I also took Theater Arts that year. (I've always loved the view from a stage.)

One day in Theater Arts, our teacher, Mr. Sweeney, told the class that all the seniors would get up and give impromptu speeches about their plans for after graduation. I suspect he just didn't have a lesson plan that day.

But that day, I stood behind the lectern and started to address the class. I would be attending Loyola University in the fall, I said. I would be pursuing a degree in medicine, ultimately. I made eye contact with my classmates, but in my peripheral vision, I could see Mr. Sweeney, sitting on his barstool at the back of the class, shaking his head.

I continued on with my speech, but the head-shaking continued as well. I finally stopped my speech to look at him and say, "What?"

"You're not going to be a doctor," he said.

"Yes, I am, Mr. Sweeney. I'm going to Loyola and I'm going to get a degree in medicine."

"No, you're going to be a writer."

"I beg to differ. I'm going to be a doctor. I'm quite sure."

"Maybe you'll write medical textbooks, but you're going to be a writer," he said very matter-of-factly.

Huh. Well, that was interesting. No one had ever told me before that I was going to be a writer. On an earlier day in Sweeney's class, we had to write poetry in iambic pentameter. You know, Shakespeare-speak. So I wrote. And then we had to read them to the class. I remember the last line of my poem: "You'll always be a wretched whore, we knew it at your birth." Nice, eh?

As I was reading my poem, Mr. Sweeney walked toward my desk. As I finished, I looked up and there he was, standing in front of me, hands outstretched. "Can I have that?" he asked, his voice slightly quiet with a hint of reverence, as if he'd just heard from The Bard himself.

"Um, sure," I said, and handed it to him. Maybe that's when he knew I was going to be a writer. Or maybe it was the day I asked him to read something I'd written on my own time and he asked me if I had really written it or copied it from somewhere. At the time, I was too flattered to be insulted.

In any event, Mr. Sweeney had planted the writing bug in my ear. Huh. Writing. Who gets paid for writing? Journalists get paid for writing. OK, then: journalism school. I knew that Southern Illinois University had a journalism program. That's as far as I went with my research. I didn't bother checking out Columbia or Northwestern or the other noted j-schools. I had friends going to SIU. That was good enough for me.

So I applied and got accepted (duh, it was a party school; I didn't think it'd be too hard to get in) and went down there to register for classes and get my housing assignment and all that logistical stuff. And as I was driving home, through what felt like hours of cornfields, my father asleep in the passenger seat, I thought, "I don't want to go to SIU. I don't like the classes I have to take. I don't like where I'm going to live. And it's six hours from home."

The next day, sitting on the floor of my parents' bedroom, I told my mom, who was making her bed, "I don't want to go to SIU."

"OK," she said. "Where are you going to go?"

Mind you, this was like the beginning of August.

"Well, we've already sent in my acceptance for Loyola, so I'll just go there," I said.

"I don't think so."


"Honey, if you really want to be a doctor, we'll find a way to pay for it, but if you're not sure, we're not going to spend $12,000 a year for you to think about it."

(Twelve thousand a year. Isn't that quaint by today's standards?)

Well, crap. A wave of panic hit me. Suddenly, I didn't have a school.

Both my brothers went to the University of Illinois at Chicago, which was on quarters, meaning the fall term didn't start until the third week of September.

I decided I could go there for a year, figure things out, and then transfer.

So that's what I did.

At residual registration, Gerry Sorensen (who would turn out to be one of my favorite professors), a dean in L.A.S. (the college of Liberal Arts and Sciences), asked, "Why are you here?"

"Um, to register for classes?" I said, wondering why he was asking such an obvious question.

"No, I mean, why are you here. Why didn't you do this sooner?"

"Because I just got accepted last week."

"Oh. OK." And he helped me pick classes. "What was your ACT in English?"


"Yeah, you're not taking Freshman Comp. Come with me."

And he walked me over to the Honors College table. "Do you have any openings in 111?"

"Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 8 a.m."

He turned to me. "You're taking Freshman Colloquium 111."


So that's what I did.

Freshman Colloquium 111 was taught by Mary Thale. (Why can't I remember what I need when I walk in a room specifically to get something but I can remember the name of the woman who taught my first English class in college in 1987?) It was not an easy class. But I did well. And you know why? Because I'd had English Teacher Dave for Senior Honors English the year before. I've told him several times over the years that there's no way I would have been prepared for college English if it hadn't been for him, him and his advanced grading scale. In Dave's class, you needed a 93 for an A. You needed an 86 for a B. You needed 78 for a C. And you needed 70 for a D. Most classes would fail you if you fell below 60. Not Dave. His threshold was 70. And thank God. I was plenty pissed at him my senior year, receiving 91s and 92s on papers that counted as Bs. But he made me think and he made me write and he made me a better student.

I had pre-med courses my freshman year and they weren't easy. I had pre-med courses my sophomore year and they weren't easy. I took English 201, Introduction to Non-fiction Writing, the fall of my sophomore year to lighten my load. The first assignment I turned in came back with the following written across the top of the first page: "A+ Absolutely grrrrrrreat!"

Huh. Really? I'd never gotten an A+ before. And it was a breeze to write. It didn't feel like work. It was fun. Huh. Hmm. I got an A in Linda's class. We're still friends.

The next term, I took Precalculus Algebra, Intermediate German, Introduction to the Writing of Poetry, Introduction to the Writing of Fiction, and Writing for Print Media. It was the only journalism class in UIC's curriculum. It was taught by Rob Moore. I thought he was one of the coolest human beings I'd ever met. We're still friends.

I got a D in German (it was my fourth year of German; I'd just stopped caring). I got a C in Pre-Calc (I've always hated math). I got a B in Poetry (good enough; I don't fancy myself a poet). I got an A in Fiction. And I got an A in Print Media. (Taking five classes per quarter was not recommended, but taking three writing classes hardly felt like too much work to me.)

By then, I'd gotten frustrated with all the prerequisites in the pre-med program. I was at English Teacher Dave's for dinner one night, and as he busied himself in the kitchen after dinner, I kept him company by bitching about school. I was railing against having to take physics. I desperately wanted to take Anatomy 113 (was it?), the anatomy class in which students started learning anatomy on cadavers. Physics just seemed beside the point.

"Someday when I'm standing in the ER with my hand in some guy's chest, what's it going to matter if I can calculate the velocity of an object?" I asked, sounding very justified in my indignance.

English Teacher Dave looked at me and said, "Beth, did you ever consider that all those prerequisites are the university's way of weeding out the serious students from the not-so-serious students?"

That statement was like a medicine ball to the stomach. Ooof.

Right around that same time, I was at home one weekend, lying in my waterbed (oh, yeah, that's right, a waterbed), reading, and I looked up at a poster that English Teacher Dave had brought me from the Smithsonian. It hangs next to my desk today. It's a sepia-toned medium shot of Einstein and the quote at the bottom of the poster reads, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

And in that moment, all those years ago, it seemed to say, "English is more important than pre-med."

And I went back to school and declared my major in English. I still took a few science and math classes, but my pre-med days were over.

In relatively recent years, I've thought about going to med school. But then the reality of all the classes I'd have to pick up and then med school itself and then an internship and then a residency hits me and I realize that it's too much to tackle this late in the game. Though I worked on a project a few years ago for the Los Angeles Department of Health Services and it was cool, hanging out in all the hospitals.

Some days, I think about what my life would have been if I would have become a doctor. Maybe I would have focused on research or maybe I would have practiced. But it's all moot. I got a degree in English and went to work for the Chicago Tribune.

At UIC, I took a one-off class taught by Charles Leroux, then the editor of Tempo at the Trib. I did well enough. I wasn't his star pupil – maybe he didn't have a star pupil – but I pulled off a few good pieces. Once, I had to drop off a paper for him at the Tower.

And a couple years later, I was working there. I don't expect he ever thought I'd end up working anywhere near him, but I spent two years working in features at the Trib. Charles had moved on from being Tempo editor to being a senior writer.

He's still there.

I am not.

But I'm still writing. Some of it even gets published.

On Sunday during brunch, Nat asked me if I'd ever write a book. I'd love to write a book. I just don't know what to write a book about. I've tried my hand at fiction, but I don't think I have the knack to write a novel. Non-fiction is my jag. Hence this blog.

To answer Anon's question, no, I've never thought of medical writing. I suspect I don't have enough of a medical background to make it in that niche. So Mr. Sweeney's prediction that I might write medical textbooks will remain unrealized.

But, overall, he was right: I'm a writer.

It took me a long time to realize it. Somewhere in my DNA, I believe that anything worth doing must be difficult. Writing has always come far too easily for me to consider it "real work."

But words course through my veins. Bad grammar and punctuation are nails on a chalkboard. Writers write, the saying goes.

And I am, because I do.

But every once in a while, my mom still calls me Doctor Beth. And I have a copy of the Color Atlas of Human Anatomy on my bookshelf.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, you are a writer. I would've written that passage in three paragraphs just knowing I was being completely thorough. A writer, I ain't.
Creating amazes me. You are blessed with a gift.

9:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Still, the length of this post suggests you’re not entirely at peace re. your choice. (As in “methinks she doth protest too much.”)

Methinks that idea (from the other Anon) about taking up medical writing is a good one. A way of living in both worlds.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

Nope, Anon, I'm at peace with my choice. I'm just verbose. My story covered parts of my childhood, high school, and college. There was a lot to cover. And I have no desire to pursue medical writing. I'm OK with my choices, thanks. Next up for me is a screenplay or an album or a bakery, not medical writing.

11:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I have a copy of Jeno Barcsay’s Anatomy for the Artist on my bookshelf, from my art school days.

Now that my domain is words rather than paint or charcoal, it comes in handy – for instance, last week, when I needed the word for the ridge between the nose and the upper lip. (FYI, it’s “philtrim.”)

1:12 PM  

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