Dr. Mark Buckner
Young people are bombarded with career options, more so now than ever before. If you think back a few years before cell phones were a staple and necessity, you may remember there were plenty of career options, but not like today. The high school and college years are a critical time in a student’s development, and the decisions they make can have a profound effect on their future life. It can be a frustrating and difficult time for many, especially when they don’t know what they are meant to do. I would speculate that most high school and college students don’t have a perfectly clear idea of what field they want to go into.
As a physician who has been in practice for over 20 years, I have had many students shadow me as I see patients. I enjoy this interaction – the ability not only to teach, but also to show them what it is that we truly experience in a typical day. My motto to them is always the same: “My mind is an open book for you. Just ask questions, and things will come into my head that we can discuss.” Also: “If I get up and start walking, you better get up and go, because I won’t grab you to come with me. You can go anywhere I go, except the bathroom!” I try my best to make them think about each patient encounter in the same way that a physician would ¬– what I’m thinking when I look at a chart, go into the room, why I ask certain questions, what I am thinking when I leave the room, what tests will I order, etc.
A wide variety of students in both high school and college have shadowed me, each one looking at some facet of the medical field. Regardless of whether they are thinking about becoming an RN, a mid-level provider or a physician, I treat them all the same. We will always need good nurses, PAs, NPs, technicians, etc. I have been able to see many of them as they go through the process of making those critical decisions to go into the medical field. It is always a privilege that I cherish.
So, this begs the question, “Why go into medicine?” There are plenty of other options for these bright young people – business, law, technology, and the list goes on. This makes the question of why to choose medicine so important, and in particular, why choose medical school? In the age and milieu we live in, with malpractice always in the back of your mind, never knowing for sure what the government will require, and other concerns, it can be hard to convince a young person that spending four years of college, then four years of medical school, and another 3-7 years of residency is worth the time and effort – especially when they know they can spend less time in school to become a PA or other mid-level provider and still make a good living.
Personally, I feel that the opportunity to become a physician is a calling. It is certainly not for everyone, but many are satisfied and happy because of their work—primarily, caring for patients and making them well. It is a calling that dwells inside you. For some of us, it may take some time to realize this fact, which was exactly my experience.
I grew up in a small west Texas town in a good family of laborers, and had no exposure to the medical field, except when it was critical to see a doctor. In high school, I didn’t even think about going to college until my senior year. My best friends were going, so I thought, “Why not?” Some in my family wondered why I didn’t just get a job and raise a family. But going to a large university was the beginning of my journey.
In college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had at least seven different majors, trying to find myself. My grades were terrible, nothing seemed right for me. I graduated with a 2.01 GPA, which is barely graduating. After graduation, I worked in the oil business, because it was something I had experience in and many members of my family worked in that field. But I was not happy. I knew it wasn’t for me, and I was extremely frustrated. I knew deep in my heart that I was meant to do something, but I could not find what that something was.
Fate, again, stepped into my life. Almost a year after college graduation, a heart surgeon allowed me to watch a cardiac bypass operation. I watched the surgery, and it was literally like the light bulb turned on. I knew right then that I wanted to be a doctor. The calling hit me. After talking with him, I took a pre-med biology course at a local university. I made an A. The only A I had previously made in college was in PE. I knew then that I could do this. I knew I could become a physician, and my life changed.
I then went to the health care advisor at the university, and told him that I had decided I wanted to become a physician. When I asked him what I needed to do to get there, his reply was exactly this: “What you need to do is forget about it, because you will never get into medical school.” I was a little shocked, but in hindsight, he was right. My GPA was so bad, the chance of even an interview was slim. But, I had seen my future, and I knew this was my calling. Most importantly, I wanted to be a doctor.
After talking again to the heart surgeon, he advised me to go back to college, take all of the classes needed to get into medical school, do well, and persist. So I took over 70 hours of physics, biology, chemistry, and other pre-med courses in order to apply to medical school, while also working to make ends meet. I made an A in every one of those 70 hours of classes. I took the MCAT, scored well above average, and then applied everywhere I could. I got exactly one medical school interview. It was at Texas Tech’s School of Medicine. Unbelievably, they took a chance on me. They were able to see the change that had occurred in my life, and overlook my prior poor GPA. They saw the new me, and for this I thank them every day. In short, I wanted badly to be the best physician I could be. I graduated #4 in my class, AOA with Honors. And there is no doubt that medical school was difficult. But for me, I loved every bit of it, and it was four of the best years of my life. Fate, opportunity, hard work, stubbornness, and mainly persistence, made it all come together.
I decided that emergency medicine was what I wanted to do, to the chagrin and dismay of the surgery residents, and the Dean of Surgery. I completed a three-year ED residency, was chosen Chief Resident for my third year, returned to Texas, began working in a busy ED, and worked there for around 18 years, with a two-year stint as Chief of Medicine. Prior to leaving that hospital to pursue an urgent care opportunity, I was the Director of the ED.
I am Board Certified in Emergency Medicine, and still work in EDs occasionally, but currently I own a clinic. It is a new challenge that I am enjoying. And for years, I have mentored many young people considering the field of medicine. Which brings us back to the title of this article, and the essence of “why medicine?”
Every profession, career and job, has its own set of good and bad. Medicine certainly has its share. I believe firmly that medicine needs to be something that draws you in, tugs at your heart, and calls out to you. It must be something that you have been exposed to, so that you know what you are getting into, otherwise, you may waste time only to realize it isn’t for you.
If a young person is considering the medical field, I encourage them to get as much hands on exposure to real medicine as they can. Then, and only then, will they know if it is their “calling.” When I hear a high school student say something like, “I want to be a pediatric anesthesiologist,” I calmly tell them that is great, but leave your mind open to all possibilities. You never know what may turn you on and change your mind. I always recommend that they follow and shadow someone in the profession that they might want to pursue. And follow them several times for an entire day, and then ask yourself, “Do I want to do this every day, day in and day out, for my entire career?” If yes, go for it. If not, keep looking, and someday it will show itself to you.
Why medicine? Because if it is your calling in life, if it fulfills you to see that you are able to take a patient who is sick and make them well, and maybe save their life, then it is worth every day, every year spent learning and training to become the best that you can be. The number of years required to become a practicing physician is daunting to many. They see the short term. But if they can see the long term, the whole life experience, then they will become physicians.
Medicine as a career can be the most fulfilling, satisfying, career in the world. It certainly has been for me. There are no words to express what you feel in your heart and soul when you have saved someone’s life. Someone who, if you had not chosen medicine, gone through all the rigors of learning and training, would have died in only a few more seconds or minutes. That is a feeling that can only be experienced; words can’t do it justice. The calling, deep in my heart, is why I chose medicine. The exposure to medicine, opened my eyes, and I saw my future. Then I went and made it happen, against the odds.
I hope and pray that those I have mentored are able to gain from me, and make good decisions as they bloom and grow; and that when they are practicing, they do for others what a humble cardiac surgeon did for me many years ago. He showed me the possibilities, encouraged me, believed in me, and passed his knowledge on to me. I try to pass it on to young people. And I ask them to do one thing for me when they are successful – pass it on. We all have needed help at times, and I try to help young students as much as possible. They often are bewildered that a physician would take a personal interest in helping them, but when I tell them my story, they quickly understand. I urge any physician who can to allow students to follow them so they can experience what we really do every day. It is a great feeling to see students succeed and know you were a part of that.
This is why I chose medicine. It called me, found me, and has fulfilled my life. I hope that each and every medical professional is able to feel the same. Pass it on.