His eyes were as wide open as his mouth as he slowly placed his beer on the bar without looking away from me. Making no effort to wipe the thick foam from his upper lip, the man continued to stare in disbelief, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.”
The thirty-something C-something-O was blown away by what I did for work. By this time a small crowd had gathered, standing in a still, silent circle around me; a mini Stonehenge, waiting eagerly to hear more about what I do every day. The conversation that had started as simple small talk — “So, what do you do for work?” — had turned into an interview by a panel of intrigued and fascinated strangers.
I recounted some stories of the remarkable things my co-residents and I have done — from saving lives, to calming nerves, to hand delivering babies in bathrooms. Then I returned the question to the gentleman I was speaking with. After nodding politely while listening to him talk about his accounts, clients, and projects (which was reminiscent of listening to a med student presentation on morning rounds), I finally made my escape. As I took a seat at the hotel bar, I made no effort to wipe the grin off my face, thinking to myself, “Man, I really do have a cool job.”
One of the many hot topics among the medical community today is resident wellness; an appropriate concern, given that the rate of depression in residents is 13 percent higher than that of the general population. There are a number of complex factors contributing to this issue, and as an emergency medicine resident I am all too often the recipient of unsolicited career advice: “You should have gone into business” or “Why would you pick that as a job?” The consensus of the general public seems to be that I would be happier doing something else. And I’ll admit, there are times when these thoughts do cross my mind. But I honestly think I have one of the best jobs on the planet. While my friends’ weekends off, happy hours, and dinners with family every night do sound appealing, it’s not enough for me to give up the fulfilling job I have.
To the residents that want to change careers and do something else: Do you know what your friends actually do while they’re at work? After knowing what you know now, and doing what incredible things you’ve seen yourself do, could you really see yourself happy sitting behind a desk in an office and crunching numbers, grinding away — literally working for the weekend and nothing else? Where the biggest thanks you would get is, “Thanks for getting that spreadsheet done quickly,” not, “Thanks for saving my life.” Where your biggest concern is, “If I mess this presentation up I won’t get the sale,” not, “If I mess this up this person could die.” We are the lucky ones because our job actually means something; we are truly making a difference every single day (including some weekends). It is surreal to think about.
Residency is tough. Life is tough. You’re going to have to work hard and make sacrifices in order to get to where you want to be. Our work is long and drawn out, and our sacrifices are many. It is delayed gratification, but I assure you there will be gratification. Our friends got theirs a little earlier than we did, and now they’re buying houses and cars and enjoying every weekend. That day will come for us as well. The way we are getting there — one of the coolest jobs on the planet, save fighter pilot, astronaut and ski patrol (okay, you got me with those) — is a lot more interesting and meaningful than grinding out the 9 to 5.
So let’s go ahead and keep our chins up, residents. Know that our job puts us among an elite group of individuals, a group of remarkable people that make miracles happen every day. We are doing some amazing, wonderful things. We’re saving lives. Our job actually matters. A lot. The work that we do affects the lives of our patients, their families, and entire communities. Not to mention we have a pretty cool uniform (save fighter pilot, astronaut and ski patrol — okay, I got it).
So when residency feels like a mistake, try to remember these things. Life is going to be hard no matter where you work, but life for us will be better one day. While we continue to work diligently towards that goal, let’s take a moment to recognize the extraordinary things that we do every single day as a part of our jobs.
Editor’s note: A version of this piece first appeared at KevinMD.com on April 22, 2016.