A Glimpse into the Heart of a Physician

Editor’s Note: This is a series of real-life essays written by physicians for entry into medical school and into residency. We hope that by sharing these, those who are not physicians will have the opportunity to see the why and know a piece of our hearts. We also hope that those who are physicians will be inspired and touched and helped to remember why we do what we do- the meaning behind our work. Copying these will constitute plagiary.

From Outward Bound to Emergency Medicine

After graduating from college with a major in Earth Science, I took a job as an Outward Bound instructor in Minnesota. At Outward Bound, we used the rigors of wilderness travel to help teach teamwork, leadership and self-reliance to our students.

The environment required us as instructors to be ever-diligent in teaching our students how to be safe while traveling in wilderness.  During my most memorable trip, one of our students had injured his shoulder while carrying a canoe overhead.  It was over 18 hours before Isaac was evacuated to the nearest hospital.  The physician in the emergency room easily reduced his dislocated shoulder, and he rejoined our group three days later with his arm in a sling.  Experiences like his motivated me to learn more about how to deal with wilderness emergencies.

My job as an instructor challenged my ability to lead small groups, teach wilderness travel and facilitate the process of self-discovery with each one of my students. Despite this, something vital was missing from my job.

The prohibitive cost of a course resulted in most of my students being upper-middle class teenagers suffering from typical teenage rebellion.  I had a desire to help and serve others who had few other resources from which to draw.  

Five years after graduating from college, I began volunteering with Operation Safety Net, an organization that makes street rounds to the homeless in downtown Pittsburgh, bringing medical care to those who might otherwise not receive any.  From my first night volunteering, I knew I had discovered something very powerful.

I saw doctors using medicine as a tool to reach people, to touch their lives in a way I had been unable to achieve with wilderness education. 

For a year, I joined a team of three others every Monday night as we visited homeless people living under bridges, next to railroad tracks, and in darkened corners of the streets.  Whenever we came across “Mikey,” he was usually passed out on a park bench, or over a warm air vent in the shadow of a large stone church.  Mikey’s toes had been amputated the year before due to frostbite, and he drank almost continuously.  I was always touched by the care and respect that the volunteers showed to a man who seemed content to drink himself to death. He eventually did.  Operation Safety Net placed a memorial placard on one of the bridge piers downtown alongside the placards of many other homeless who had died on the streets

My experiences with Outward Bound and Operation Safety Net provided the fuel that motivated me throughout medical school.   I continued to educate myself beyond what I saw in clinics and in the classroom.  I became certified as an EMT, and became involved in our local search and rescue group.  My second year in medical school, I founded a chapter of the Wilderness Medical Society and invited faculty members to give lectures on wilderness and emergency medicine topics.  The following year I became certified as a Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician.  I was finally feeling like my seemingly unrelated interests were beginning to converge.

During my fourth year, as I became more independent seeing and managing patients in the hospital, I felt something magical happening. That powerful tool I had seen Operation Safety Net physicians using to reach the homeless began to feel like it was now part of me. No longer did becoming a physician seem like simply an endpoint to reach after residency, but it began to emerge as a means to a greater end.

The summation of my experiences has brought me to the foot of a new challenge.  I feel that a career in Emergency Medicine will provide me with the training I seek to become a compassionate physician able to provide care in a variety of settings whether it be in the Emergency Department of a busy urban hospital, the streets of downtown Pittsburgh, or the Northwoods of Minnesota.