As a resident, one of my favorite parts of the job isn’t the medical aspect — it’s hearing attendings’ opinions on things outside of medicine. One of my mentors, who has only been practicing for a few years, speaks of "turning right." What he is referencing is the security we find in doing the same thing over and over and never leaving our comfort zone. You turn right into the parking lot, go into the same building, and do the same job day after day. Eventually, days become months and months become years. You look back and wonder what you have accomplished. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you are comfortable with it.
Personally, I am not comfortable with it. I view my attending’s words as a summation of my own journey. When I graduated from college, I turned left and joined the U.S. Army. I was able to live in Europe, lead an infantry platoon into combat, and travel to the Middle East. For most, that would have been enough, but I decided to turn left again and join the U.S. Army Special Forces — the Green Berets. It seemed a challenging and exciting goal, so I applied for the assessment program and was accepted. After graduating from the lengthy training pipeline, I traveled extensively in Central and South America, handled explosives, jumped out of airplanes, and worked with top-notch soldiers. Eventually, I made the decision to leave the active military.
At this point, I was not sure what my next step would be. So I thought: Why not turn left again? After a relatively short research period, I applied for and was accepted to medical school. For several reasons, I had always thought being a physician was far out of reach, but my hard work proved this wrong. I completed a family medicine residency and stumbled into a great job in an ED in Texas. The staff was exceptional, the work was interesting, and it was a wonderful environment. I did that for 11 years until my department started an emergency medicine (EM) residency program. I knew I could continue to work there, not as EM faculty, for a few more years until the program was fully manned with three years of residents and then slide quietly into retirement. And yet, I had always wanted to be an EM faculty — so I turned left and applied for and was accepted to an excellent EM residency program in Florida. A new system, different EMR, more work, and less pay. I couldn’t be happier!
As humans, we unconsciously fall into the rhythm of life and naturally take the path of least resistance. It is not a fault but just our nature. Doing things that are difficult, uncomfortable, or uncertain takes conscious effort. And yet, when that effort is exerted, it can pay off. As an example, a friend of mine from medical school had been working in the same hospital-managed clinic since graduation 15 years prior. It was profitable, comfortable, and secure. Eventually, he got tired of corporate medicine and working for someone else. And so, like me, he turned left. About a year ago he opened the doors to his own clinic that he planned and built from scratch. We email occasionally and I could tell by his tone that the first couple of days were not blockbusters. And yet, he is a great physician with a sense for business and his new venture is now thriving. I wholeheartedly welcomed him to the fray of the unknown.
My resident colleagues have also turned left. With their work ethic and intellect, they all could have taken an easier path that was much less stressful than the world of medicine. Instead, they chose to be physicians, giving up their 20s to pursue a higher purpose of caring for others. I am in awe of them every day. I feel confident that the medical community will be in good hands long after I retire.
There is nothing wrong with continuing down the current path that we have set for ourselves. Every person’s journey is different. For me, I always wanted to see what was next and only I had control of which way to go. The days are long but the years are short, and I want to look back and not wonder “what if.”
So here I sit, a 55-year-old PGY3 in emergency medicine. The oldest resident in the hospital and most likely the oldest EM resident in the country. What was I thinking? What have I done? I turned left. Another intersection is just up ahead.
Have you ever “turned left” in your career? What was the experience like for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Matt Lindgren, MD is a 3rd year resident in emergency medicine at the University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. He is a Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve with nearly 30 years of experience and has deployed extensively to the Middle East and Central/South America. Matt writes: To all of my resident colleagues, all of your questions have been answered. It has been an honor and pleasure serving with you.
Image by GoodStudio / Shutterstock