Who are you? Or rather, what are you? Specifically, what defines you? What one word or phrase do you use to identify yourself, to the world, and in the mirror?
As someone who is, as my golfing buddies say, “on the back nine of life,” I find myself morbidly drawn to the obituaries in my daily paper (the fact that I still read an actual print newspaper tells you a lot about my age and proclivities). I’m intrigued by how a full life of seven or more decades can be summed up in a paragraph. For local notable deaths, the obit is considerably longer, but for those notices, there is just a headline, which condenses the life into an even briefer summation — and that’s the interesting part. For most of the deceased, the occupation is the primary identifier. “Local attorney, advocate for the homeless, loses long fight with cancer.” “Long-time dentist cared for three generations of patients.”
So, I’ve been thinking about how I want my obit to read. With “physician” or “doctor” as the main descriptor, or something more specific, like “pediatrician?” Or a blend, like “physician/writer?” Or maybe something unrelated to my profession: “devoted husband” or “father of four?” As for all of us, there are a lot of labels that could be used for me. I harbor no illusions that I will be celebrated in an extended obit, but other identifiers that might be used include “avid reader,” “medical writer,” “essayist,” and “area volunteer.” If my hobbies are incorporated, I could be described variously as “wretched golfer” and “worse chess player,” “champion trivia buff,” or “patron of the arts” (a fancy way of saying I love the theater).
For many of those belonging to a different generation, the main definition of a person centered on their ethnicity. My parents, for example, almost always began a description of someone this way: “I saw the Polish butcher today,” or “How’s your Serbian friend?” My wife grew up on the south side of Chicago and for her, the Catholic parish you belonged to defined you as much as anything else: “You’re dating a boy from Christ the King?” or “You know those St. John Fischer kids?”
The deeper question for Doximity readers, though, is this: How much is your profession a part of your identity? My guess is, as it is for me, a large part. You don’t spend as much time (and money) preparing for a career as we did, and then spend as much time and effort in the practice of it, to not have it be a part of your core identity. But I know that with burnout and the general disappointment many of us feel for what the profession has become, we may be soured on even identifying ourselves primarily as doctors when we pass. We may prefer now to describe ourselves with other labels.
I never identify myself as a doctor when I’m doing something non-medical, like making dinner or hotel reservations (back when I could do those things, pre-COVID-19). When my kids were in school, their teachers (the ones who weren’t parents in my practice) would call me “Mr.” Rucoba, and I never corrected them. Same for my kids’ friends (again, the ones who weren’t patients in my practice). I’m not ashamed of being a doctor, it’s just that, for those purposes, it’s irrelevant (and conveniently for me, cut down on the informal consults).
In fact, I’m quite proud of being a pediatrician. It is a core part of my identity, and I would like it to be listed as the first descriptor in my obituary. But it’s not the only descriptor, and I hope I’m described with some of the other labels I mentioned above. I’d add others, as well: “cancer survivor,” “transplant recipient and advocate,” “proud Mexican-American,” “grandchild of immigrants,” and (not insignificantly) “lifelong devoted White Sox fan” (insert your own joke here, I’m used to it).
But I’m curious: Is the first descriptor in your obit “doctor,” “physician,” “surgeon,” or something else related to your profession? Or would you prefer some other identifier? It all comes back to the question I started with: Who are you?
What would you want your obituary to say? Share your rough drafts in the comments.
A practicing pediatrician for over 26 years, Dr. Ruben J. Rucoba currently serves as Director of Medical Services for PediaTrust, a large pediatric "supergroup" in the Chicago area. He also established his own thriving medical writing and editing business in 2010. He has no conflicts of interest to declare. Dr. Rucoba was a 2019–2020 Doximity Op-Med Fellow and is a 2020–2021 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.