My father used to tell me, “You can be whatever you want after medical school;” he was only half joking. Even at an early age, I was innately aware that my predestined genetic composition precluded careers in certain exclusive field, like prima ballerina, pop/actress phenomenon, professional princess, or Maria Von Trapp’s extra child in The Sound of Music. And so I embraced my fate as a future physician bravely and with some naïveté. Growing up, medical aspirations were always coupled to a second, sexier profession like doctor/artist, doctoring writer, or a tap dancing surgeon. These hybrid phantoms followed me to college where I was a premed English major. I spent elementary school perfecting my teacher’s pet mojo so that every successive report card included the sentence, “Kerith is a pleasure to have in class.” Middle school study skills were honed for high school to secure a future in the Ivy League. Brian reduces my entire high school academic career to one searing image: Reese Witherspoon in the movie Election. He says, “Have you seen the movie Election? Kerith was the Reese Witherspoon character - only worse.” Of course this is entirely untrue.
Next, college was a calculated, strategic campaign to ensure my medical school application would eclipse the others, a red buoy bobbing above the crushing tide of biology and biochemistry majors. Four years later, medical school led to the surgical internship I’d so coveted. I had successfully scaled the icy precipice of academia and encountered the apex on July 1, 1998. At precisely 7:01 am, the denizens of ICU nurses turned their attention from the outgoing intern (now officially a resident) and descended on me like a swarm of buzzing, blood hungry mosquitoes. I was the only intern covering 15 or more very sick neurosurgical patients, all on ventilators, all needing my attention immediately. I thought I might throw up. Actually, I didn’t vomit that day, but the very next I nearly passed out in the O.R. until a kind nurse led me out into a cool room for some orange juice and jellybeans. That happened to me two more times that first month.
No longer beholden to rounding on post-op patients on weekend mornings, I now look forward to a more meandering pace devouring a latte and the Modern Love column in the Sunday Times. The voyeuristic stories are a telescopic lens into someone else’s love life, encapsulated profiles of different relationships between parents and children and husbands and lovers and siblings. Not all are fuzzy. Some are tragic and heartbreaking, even devastating. But none have yet chronicled the relationship between an individual and their job, as in, “I love my job.” Or not. What are the ramifications for a person’s psyche, self worth or personal identity when they despise what they do? Brian recalls my calling him at 2 or 3 am sobbing on the cold, linoleum floor of the women’s surgical locker room. Fifteen minutes into wailing about how much I hated my job, I abruptly stopped to say, “I have to go now and take out someone’s appendix.” Brian wasn’t worried for me but for the poor guy on the table in OR 3.
I had worked so very, very hard to clench my spot in competitive world of surgical training, and it stunk. It was not until after I’d already committed myself to Riverside Country Hospital, after the first moments of that first horrible morning passed in slow motion that I realized nothing was as I’d expected. And nothing really ever is, is it? What can prepare you for marriage or kids or suddenly being responsible for the lives of people you didn’t even know existed before you walked through the sliding glass doors to the ICU? My patients’ generosity became my albatross, and the guilt gnawed my insides raw. They gifted me with hand knit blankets, bags of Jamaican coffee beans, and every sort of sugary, delicious indulgence, but at the end of the day, I still hated my job. I screamed at the poor medicine residents in the E.R. and made one cry. I was mean.
Internship seems ages ago now. To call myself a physician today would endanger the lives of those seeking my “professional medical advice.” Once on a plane, some years ago, the flight attendant paged overhead to inquire if a physician was on board. Their request was repeated three or four times, each with increasing urgency. I slumped in my seat and stared out the window, hoping nothing about my outward appearance would divulge that I was in fact a failed, ex-MD pretending to be nothing of the sort. Thankfully the older gentleman in front of me finally responded, a retired family doc from New Jersey. Funny how that degree once defined me so completely. Now I am incredibly lucky to have Bruliam Wines. While our wine business is a joy, I still struggle to categorize myself professionally.
Today I am a wife and mother, but that is not income producing. I suppose I am a “writer” since I have a blog (doesn’t everyone), but that sounds ridiculous and pretentious, especially for an unpublished fop who writes for fun. I am a student, indulging my passion for wine with online enology classes, and a sort-of winemaker, with Chris’ help, of course. Ever a student, I am hoping my online “certification” will somehow galvanize enology as a legitimate career choice for me. My new “whatever I want” is a patchwork of half identities cobbled together as best I can. It’s not exactly resume building stuff, but at least I can now definitively say that I love my job.
A few weeks ago, my kids were at the beach on a play date with the kids of an old, elementary school friend of mine. She asked me if I was interested in speaking at Career Day at our high school alma mater. Incredulous, I queried, “You want me to talk about surgical pathology?” After all, I did practice actual medicine for the few short months between the end of my second fellowship and the birth of my first child. She paused and looked at me quizzically. “No,” she clarified, “I want you talk about what it’s like to find your passion late in life.”