This is a call to everyone who finished medical school and subsequently walked away from medicine (ie: those who just finished school, those who finished residency, or those who spent some years as a practicing physician and decided to call it quits). I’m having a dilemma and I would greatly appreciate your input.
Here’s my story (not that I’m a special case, but I wanted to provide it in case it changes the advice you would give):
I attended medical school because I loved learning, I enjoyed helping people, and honestly, I appreciated the prestige. I applied to medical school immediately after finishing my undergraduate degree and went to the first school that accepted me. Even though I could be described as “type A,” I didn’t do as much research as I should have. I was extremely naïve.
My first two years of medical school were tough, but also awesome. I loved the friends I made and I welcomed the reading and learning that were involved. There were so many interesting topics to explore! Something changed during the last two years of school, however. I started my clinical rotations and everything suddenly became “real.” I witnessed the death and deterioration of patients around me first-hand. Test questions pertaining to rare diseases, which seemed like interesting puzzles waiting to be solved before my clinical rotations, subsequently became too complicated to master. All the puzzle pieces seemed to constantly change shape and color. I could never be sure that they fit together. Metaphors aside, I was suddenly terrified that all my decisions had gargantuan consequences. I couldn’t seem to make even small decisions without spiraling down a black hole of questions. What impact would a drug I prescribe have on the patient who took it? What would happen if I made the wrong decision? What if I missed a diagnosis that another physician would catch? What if my memory wasn’t sufficient to recall “zebra” diagnoses and drug interactions and… (fill in the blank). I always worried.
Again and again, it came back to the fact that there’s so much about the human body that is not yet understood. I didn’t feel like I could play God. I couldn’t look at someone as say “you should take this” or “you should have this procedure” when I couldn’t fully understand the impact of that recommendation. Learning was the reason I went into medicine; yet learning the plethora of things that I did not (could not) know made me terrified to practice medicine. And that’s what happened. I lived in a perpetual state of being terrified. I went to my rotations terrified. Anxiety was a constant companion. And it only got worse in residency. I started to lose the passion that learning provided. My anxiety paradoxically affected my memory and made me more anxious. It was a vicious cycle. I kept on keeping on for three main reasons. #1: I believed being a kind and conscientious person made me a better physician- I wanted to be available for patients that needed me. But then I started to question myself. What made me competent enough to take the lives of others into my own hands? Why did I have that right? Was my fear and distaste for medicine making me more complacent and less driven than what I needed to be to be an effective physician? #2: My friends and family encouraged me to “finish.” Finish medical school. Finish the USMLE exams. Finish residency. Finish fellowship. Finish finish finish. They all said it would get better in time. They told me that experience would allay the anxiety. My experience, though limited (I know), has not changed a damn thing. #3: The money. I spent so much time and money preparing for a career in medicine up to this point. It seemed ridiculous to walk away. And even though my training salary was modest at best, wouldn’t it be preposterous to walk away from the promise of a bountiful salary once I finished training and started life as a practicing physician? Those three ideas haunted me day in and day out.
But there were also antagonistic ideas that put those three to shame. Ideas such as “quality of life” and “family” and “the fleeting impermanence of life.” I witnessed young individuals diagnosed with deadly illnesses and I learned that time is not guaranteed. That spurred me (like so many others) to the conclusion that I should do what makes me happy. As an aside, I know it’s impossible to be happy at work all the time, but isn’t it a reasonable goal to not be unhappy most of the time? And lastly, after serious introspection, I realized I wanted to have a family. Here’s where the entitled and selfish part of me steps in. Not only did I want to have a family, but I wanted to be there to raise that family. I wanted to catch the small moments and be available to shape the people my children would become. I didn’t fault others for doing so, but I didn’t want to raise my children through nannies and sitters and from the distance of my workplace. I assured myself that I did want to work part-time, but I also wanted to be available for my children. I wanted to put them first. These ideas blended into an overarching and repetitive thought that screamed, “it’s time for you to leave medicine. You’re not happy. Medicine doesn’t complement your priorities. Stop living out of fear and just leave.”
So… aforementioned are some jumbled deliberations of the last five years. Here’s where I’ll ask for your help. Why did you decide to leave medicine? When you look back, was it worth it? Do you have regrets? Did you finish your training before exiting the field? Did you interrupt your training to try another field? Did you try and re-enter the medical field? Do you have pearls of wisdom? Or are you just as lost as I am?
Any and all applicable thoughts are welcomed.
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