There are many stereotypes about what type of person goes into each medical specialty. In medical school, we often speculated about what field each of our classmates would choose based on their personality, and rarely were we surprised. The typical characterization of a macho surgeon or beautiful dermatologist or crunchy granola family practice doctor seemed to hold true in many cases. As I progressed through my medical school rotations, I found my OB/Gyn residents to feel like sorority sisters, the emergency medicine residents were cowboys, and the family medicine residents were out to save the world. Fitting with these archetypes, when I met my chief surgery resident he was so intense that I fumbled my own name as a I shook his hand. In my defense, I had recently changed my name after getting married, but my mistake did not bestow much confidence in my capabilities from this former military man. Yes, he ran our team much like what I imagine boot camp to be. After long hours in the operating room, getting grilled by attendings in academic conferences, and rounding in the surgical ICU long after sunset, my fellow medical student and I would whisper to each other about whether or not we should eat the saltines we had hidden in our pockets and whose turn it was to sneak off to the bathroom (urinating is weakness).
We both already knew we weren’t going to be surgeons, but before we revealed to our residents where our interests lay, they speculated on where we “fit” in the echelons of medicine. I don’t remember how they judged the other fields, but when they mentioned pediatricians I perked up. “What type of person is a pediatrician?” I made them repeat. The senior resident confidently stated as if this were a universal fact, “the kind of person who puts stickers on their ID badge.” I glanced down to my photo ID hanging from my scrub waistband with a small, shiny red heart sticker just above my name. I remember that someone had handed out these hearts on Valentine’s Day during my psychiatry rotation and I immediately fixed it to my badge for safe-keeping. I knew I wanted to be a pediatrician long before this sticker comment, but it delighted me that I fit the stereotype.
While luckily, the pediatrician stereotypes within the medical community tend to be relatively favorable: smiling, sticker-bearing, Patch Adams types of people, not all specialties are judged so positively. However, in terms of academic prowess, pediatricians tend to rank lower on the totem pole, being under appreciated for how challenging and complex the field is, simply because it focuses on children. If you are studying kids, it must be easy, right? Children are usually healthy, so there can’t be much to cover, right? Don’t they just hand out Band-Aids?
It always thrills me to run into doctors who take care of adults who then have to cross-train in pediatrics, for example adult trauma surgeons, radiologists, or emergency medicine physicians, and watch them discover how intellectually challenging pediatrics really is. No, our residency doesn’t involve rotations in telling jokes, building forts, or playing X-box, although if you are lucky you might get to do all of those while on call, as well as run a code, perform procedures, and treat exotic diseases. Then there is also the challenge of caring for children at the end of life, which is truly a humbling privilege. One adult practitioner once told me, “I wish he could just tell me what’s wrong with him. At least adults can talk!” while she was caring for a sick infant. I felt bad for her not yet learning to see kids the way pediatricians do and realizing all of the non-verbal ways that children communicate with us. Caring for children is an art.
Having a mentor in medicine often dictates what specialty one chooses, not simply the stereotypes that fit our personality. For me, my choice was made years ago as I had my own personal experience as a patient. I looked up to my pediatricians as heroes and I dreamed of being just like them, long before I understood what that entailed. After finishing residency and looking for a job, I unexpectedly interviewed in a practice where one of my pediatricians now works. When he joined my interview, I introduced myself to him using my maiden name (not fumbling my words this time) and he instantly remembered who I was and what illness I had as a child. “Oh your mom was so worried about you,” he said. This memory stuck with him twenty-four years later. I sat there thinking how amazing it was that this man inspired my career and now I was his colleague. I think about this every time a patient tells me that she/he wants to be a pediatrician. I smile as I hand out stickers to these children, thinking that someday they may identify not only with the friendly sticker-dispensing lady, but with the physician who made a difference in their childhood.