Having physicians for parents

Here’s the stereotype of the average (Asian?) parent:

This stereotype is probably seen as even more likely to be true when the parent is himself a doctor. In 2009, however, a study in the Annals of Surgery found that only 51% of 24922 surgeons sampled would recommend a career as a physician/surgeon to their children.  Earlier papers from the mid 1990’s suggest that similar of percentages of physicians in all specialties would not recommend their career to their kids, and moreover, some 30 percent of young physicians (under 40) would not become physicians themselves if given the choice again.

Although all I seem to hear about are premedical students who have physician-parents who inspire them, my mother was one of those physicians who would not recommend her career.

My mother was a child psychiatrist in China at the Nanjing Brain Hospital in the 1980’s. At this leading institution, Chinese psychiatrists were already using drugs after the 1940’s, but these drugs were mostly sedatives, and used to quiet more violent or energetic patients. They used medications in the 60’s but more often used physical restraints as drugs were expensive and China was very poor at that time.

My mom, who worked specifically with schizophrenic children, was interested but oftentimes troubled by her work. The medication was primitive, and had heartbreaking side-effects that made the children glassy-eyed as they shuffled sedately about. It did not always feel like they could help their young patients.

When my mother took me to visit her hospital last winter and toured the old facilities guided by her old colleagues, she was particularly excited to watch in on a group therapy session of a dozen or so schizophrenic adolescents. “You can barely tell they are on medication,” she gushed.

Due to her own experiences working in a field that was never really her calling where she was forced to make difficult decisions about sick children on a daily basis, my mother was perhaps more wary than the average parent of the reality behind the stereotypical doctor – the sage healer with an advanced degree, a stable job and an excellent salary. She knows about the long hours, the everyday onslaught of failures and the mindless paperwork. My dad, after understanding a little better her reservations, suggested I might become a computer scientist like him. My mother herself trained to become a computer programmer and then an office administrator after immigrating to Canada, abandoning her medical career in the early 90’s.

I do think, however, that having a parent as a physician has a substantial impact on the way a child views medicine. From the time that I could understand that my mother was a doctor, I projected many of my ideals of what a doctor was and should be onto her, and many of her strengths as those bequeathed to her by her professional training. I thought my mom knew better than other moms because she had an MD. Other moms were superstitious when they talked about some foods being healthier than others, but mine was probably right. After all, when other parents found out that my mom used to be a doctor, they frequently called to ask for her advice too.

For a variety of reasons, my earliest memories are from hospitals.  I was very sick when I was two and so spent over a month in the hospital where, during a tantrum induced by too many people poking too many things into me, I screamed at my first nanny, who went home shame-faced and resigned from her post.  Pictures of me show a small thin child with a shaved head – they’d cut off all my hair so they could put IV’s or needles into my head, as they’d run out of places to prick me on my limbs. I looked like a small, thin boy when I left the hospital.

Even when I got better, my earliest memories are of spending time in my mother’s hospital, playing on the indoor swing set and fish-skeleton jungle gym. Only much later did I find out what my mother did as a doctor, which explained why the playgrounds were always indoors in the hospital, and why they were always empty whenever I was allowed to play in them.

While my mother did not recommend that I become a physician, she made this idea plausible to me from the very start, and has been supportive of my decision. From taking me to work and from being my image of that profession from the moment I understood what it meant to have a job, she has always kept doctoring on my list of possible careers until I came to embrace it only after a few years in college.

Whenever I tell people that my mother was a child psychiatrist, I always see that half-joking smirk of, “oh that’s how you turned out this way.” Ignoring the joke that perhaps I’m a little insane myself (or that I’m unusually well-adjusted?), I always get the urge to say, “but that’s NOT why I want to be a doctor!” In fact the specialties I am probably least interested in are psychiatry and neurology, taken whichever Freudian way you will. But I guess there’s no denying it. It’s true that having a physician as a parent has helped me find my own way to medicine, even if the way did not always seem so clear since my mother was in the 50% of physicians who would not recommend their own career.



One thought on “Having physicians for parents

  1. I’m really happy I stumbled upon your blog today. I can relate to a lot of things you write about, especially in this post. I am also of Chinese descent, born to formerly-physician parents who practiced medicine in China. I also lived in Canada for many years (Montreal), but currently in the US now, and like you, I am entering med school in the fall, and I also feel like my parents’ physician careers were a subtle and intangible force in influencing my choice to become a doctor.

    Your writing is so precise and beautiful, and I really look forward to reading your future entries!

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