“So…Why do you want to become a doctor?”
This is a staple question in almost every medical school entry interview, and it is one I’ve also had to answer many times in the past. Even five years post-graduation from medical school, you would think I’d left that question a long way into my past but no, it follows you. That store attendant will ask it. Your friends will ask it. Your UBER driver will ask it (many times…. trust me). The question never leaves you…. *sigh*
When I was in secondary school, it wasn’t even asked in the most encouraging way. It was usually asked as a prefix to statements such as “wow, seven years in university is loooong” or “Your mates will be earning money years before you do, it’s not worth it!” I even had a careers advisor try and encourage me to reconsider my career options, because “people from this area [East London in the early ‘00s] rarely become doctors.” True story. Name withheld. Let’s move on…
So that much-repeated question…The question itself may seem simple enough, but it has layers of depth to it. It has identified a purpose and is probing the heart behind the purpose. That is why it’s asked so regularly in medical school interviews: to navigate past all the rhetoric, ego and performance of the person on the other side of the table and reveal the true contents of the person’s mind and soul…
So…Why did *I* want to become a doctor?
I had a love of anatomy and medicine from early childhood. If I wasn’t playing Zelda and Goldeneye on my N64, I was perfecting my art skills by drawing the insides of the human body. A heavy reader in my early ages, alongside Roald Dahl books and Harry Potter, I’d be leafing through ‘Human Body’ books – fascinated by anatomical design and how all those organs worked, what made them work, what went wrong and how one could possible fix things when they did. Shows like ‘ER’ and ‘Chicago Hope’ were dotted in among my regular TV schedule alongside ‘Sabrina The Teenage Witch’ and ‘The Fresh Prince’ (wow this whole paragraph is saying a lot about my age…)
Many people have a flashpoint in life. A moment where their purpose become clear as day. Mine occurred watching an awards show on TV years ago. It was a show awarding people who have made a significant impact to everyday people or done amazing things – soldiers, charity workers, etc. However, the closing aspect of the show changed my life forever. It has stayed with me until today, throughout my medical career to-date. And it is this more than anything which crystallised my thoughts and formed the foundation of my ‘why’…
The presenter introduced a heart surgeon who was to be presented with a Lifetime Achievement award. This man from North Africa, retiring following a 30+ year career in cardiac surgery, walked out and looked so unassuming. So humble. A medical giant stood before us as a minnow; Clark Kent standing where we would expect a tall & imposing Superman to be, with his red cape billowing beneath the warm stage lights.
And then, it happened.
The presenter, after presenting the award, told the surgeon that a few patients he had helped over the years had attended the awards and wanted to take the opportunity to say thank you. Immediately from each end of the stage rushed on 200 people of all ages, all colours, all sizes. Babies cradled by their thankful parents. Teenagers running to hi-five him. Children reaching for his hand, looking up at him in awe. Middle-aged parents, managers, people who had become successes in their own field. Elderly ladies and gentlemen, grateful to this man for a new lease of life.
The image was incredibly powerful. This humble man, by merely pursuing his passion in life, was standing here completely outnumbered on this stage by a heaving army of humanity – each person standing with him so giddy to be re-united with their hero, the man who saved their life. And this was just a minute proportion of the people he had operated on over the years.
So why did I want to become a doctor? I must admit that I had originally been apprehensive about many things regarding a career in medicine. The time it would take to achieve. The hard work in medical school. The competition. The debt I would accrue. The relentless pursuit for excellence. It daunted me in my formative years. However, it was that image, of seeing the tangible fruits of labour of a man who had dedicated his life to his purpose, which made me decide to leap head-on into the unknown and chase my dream, no matter how hard things would get. It was thinking about all the families, friends and loved-ones attached to all the patients he had treated over the years – all indebted to a single human being for the gift of life, a better shot at life. It was the humility of this one man, even when he was being elevated as a hero. A career in its midnight hour. One man. 200 people. Thousands more over the years. This was true success.
That image sealed the deal for me. Now, having passed through medical school and having the privilege of changing my ‘Mr’ into a ‘Dr’, people funnily don’t say anything anymore about how long it takes to get through medical school, or think about my friends having received their salaries earlier than me! And I’ve never been afraid to go far-and-wide to pursue my dreams. I go into work every single day, aiming to deliver the biggest smile and the gentlest heart to every person I meet. I’ve studied in Liverpool and London and worked as far as Northern Ireland. Personal trials and tribulations, and personal research, have led me to choose to become a Psychiatrist, fuelled by a fierce desire to increase awareness of mental health and make significant generational change here in the UK and in my homeland of Ghana. I know Psychiatry is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I want to fight for those who don’t have a voice and those who find themselves stigmatised even in general healthcare settings. Five years into medicine, and in my own little way, I’m building my own legacy and helping people every single day – by following my purpose.
I hope the story of the heart surgeon gives you a second wind and a renewed energy to pursue your dreams and realise your purpose – regardless of whether you are a medical student, a budding doctor, or someone who is starting to think about their place in the world. But I also hope it reminds you that no man is an island. Regardless of your status, remember that your words, your actions, affect somebody somewhere. Always. You may not be an eminent heart surgeon, but simply as a human being, we all have a duty to love one another, support one another, and help each other get by in this life in the best way we possibly can. Leave a tangible impact. Let people be indebted to you for improving their life in a way they wouldn’t have managed if you weren’t around. Dedicate yourself to blessing this planet with your own unique gifts, and by finding your true purpose in this life we live.
Discover your ‘why’ and work hard to create a beautiful legacy – the world will be so grateful for it.
By Dr Jermaine Bamfo