By Joan Larsen
The phone rang. As I answered, I would never have believed that – with my answers – I could be changing a life at the other end.
Ethan – my friend’s newly 16-year-old son, a boy brilliant in my estimation – was counting on me for help. Those in high school honors class and beyond, have probably already been thinking of what they might want to do in life, he was told by his teachers. (Like many of you, the first thing that came into mind was “WOW, that is young”!) For a large part of their year’s final grade as sophomores, they were asked to choose two such professions they had been thinking of, find a well-regarded person in those professions, and either have an half-hour phone interview or send the professional questions that would cover that amount of time in talking.
Sure, I thought this was an excellent idea . . . but how many accomplished people are going to give this valuable time of their own to a kid in high school? That, of course, was going to be the teen’s problem. A significant essay, affecting grades, would be developed from the results, and perhaps guidance in honors classes would further guide the child on the path he might pursue.
Now . . . for the “don’t miss” section. We never know, do we, what we may accomplish if we but try? The next step took my breath away!!!
Ethan said that I had been quite vocal for years on how very special my local internist was. Ethan felt he might want to be a doctor, but needed help and guidance to make a decision. Did I think my prized internist would be willing to give time to a phone interview or an email one?
“Write him a letter, Ethan, that will cover all bases: tell him of the esteem Joan Larsen has for his abilities and personality, your reasons for possibly pursuing this profession, and then ask for his willingness for a phone interview or a written question-and-answer one (which I personally found lacked the give-and-take needed for a good outcome). And then – well — let’s see what happens!”
Ethan’s letter deserves to be printed. It was warm and it was “a winner”. However, my internist has given me permission to print his reply to Ethan:
I would be most happy to meet you and talk to you. But you can shadow me for a day or two or longer. You will see for yourself what it is like to be a physician. It is not me, but it will be my patients who will convince you to choose this career. I am very optimistic that you will like this experience. I will leave it up to you to choose the day and let me know.
A day was settled on. The internist then suggested that he would come in to meet Ethan an hour early – before patients arrived – so the two could have enough to time to talk together and have questions answered.
There was instant rapport. It was 8am when they sat together on either side of the desk. The first thing the doctor did was to take off his wristwatch, telling Ethan that a good doctor does not wear a watch during his day with his patients. You only put that watch on again when you are ready to return home. You are there, he said, to give the patients the help they need. They have come in because something is wrong. In some cases, the problems take a longer time to resolve. Or it might take 10 minutes. Whatever it takes, you are there to see to patients’ needs, whatever it takes.
“Ethan”, he then said, “I don’t want you to watch me when I deal with patients. I want you to watch the patient to see if I am doing a good job. They must feel better when they leave than they did when they came in the door. You hopefully will see the difference”.
Ethan was introduced to each patient. The patient had a choice but was told that Ethan was thinking of becoming a doctor as well, and was here to observe. Of the 23 patients Ethan saw in the first day, no one objected and all smiled.
Most difficult, Ethan thought, were the three with terminal cancer. But none were crying and the doctor-patient conversation was upbeat. Each patient was very open, obviously feeling and knowing that the doctor truly cared about him. All who went out were thanking the doctor – actually THANKING him – for his warm care and help. (The internist did say that he also got a number of hand-written thank-you notes from patients each week, filled with appreciation).
At noon, the doctor had arranged a private lunchtime in his office for the two of them with lunch sent in, knowing that Ethan would have many questions after the morning spent with the patients.
The doctor was open, saying how costly it was now to have a private practice. Insurance rules on tests made it almost impossible at times to have a valid diagnosis as some needed tests were not covered. More clerical help was needed. Unlike other doctors this year who write on the computer instead of looking at the patient, this internist took a few written notes, and then he stayed long after the day was over to fill out the forms. It was not just a courtesy to the patients. It was important that the patient felt free to talk face-to-face with a doctor on their most private concerns.
At Ethan’s large private school, he had been amazed that incoming freshmen already were talking about what medical school they were going to do everything to get into. At 14 they (or their parents) had chosen their “specialty” – with dermatology or anesthesiology most often talked about by these “kids”. Their knowledge of how much money they would make was already the only prime factor. They already KNEW how much that would be.
And so Ethan had told the internist what was happening in his high school. The doctor had been in a group practice. He knew that money made was the key factor spoken about in private. He didn’t fit in.
And this was why: A dedicated doctor, he said, is in the profession with his main interest and concern to help people. Your feelings (as Ethan had seen in the examining room) have to come from the heart. You cannot be concerned about time. These are people – people like you that need help – and you have pledged that you have chosen this profession to do that.
Ethan’s beliefs coincide so strongly with those of the internist: “I watched how revered he was by his patients. I saw him give his ‘all’ over and over. In life, aren’t we here to help others? I want to be like this doctor.”
But even Ethan heard that day the truths of what is happening now and will be happening in a larger sense in the physician field in the future. Between insurance situations and the latest generation’s quest to make as much money as they can (narrowing the time spent with patients among other things) , this doctor’s strong belief that he is there to help his patients, save his patients, make life better for them, may not fit into the world that is on the medical cusp.
The days spent at the internist’s side were invaluable. This was hands-on experience, the fullest understanding of the meaning of what “giving to the patients” meant and should mean. Right now, Ethan plans to do more thinking about the realities of this fast- evolving profession. . . as he should.
His strong beliefs, though, remain the same. When he looks you in the eye and says that he is on this earth to help people and he will find a way, you know that Ethan will find that way and do it well.
There are moments, times in our lives that stand out – over and above all others. For Ethan, for me, this was definitely one of them. Never ever to be forgotten.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”