Everybody has a story of how they ended up in medicine. Here is mine.
I grew up in Germany. I didn’t like high school, and my grades were proof of that. In spite of after-school tutoring in English, Latin, French, math and physics, I barely scraped by. But I was pretty good at soccer. Going to medical school was no option—I didn’t have the grades, and over there, even more than here, that’s all that matters.
After working as a mailman (second-best job I ever had), I was drafted into the German army (not even the third-best job I ever had) and then decided to study biology at the University of Tübingen (Google it—awesome town). As a graduate student I spent a year at Duke University and there met my future wife, Joy. After hitchhiking across the country for a few months, I went back home to Germany.
A year later, I found myself going back to Duke, then followed Joy to Philadelphia, where she started medical school while I tried to figure out what I wanted to do. I was working toward a PhD in molecular biology, but it soon became clear that I didn’t want to spend my whole life studying fruit flies in a lab.
I sat in on some med school classes with Joy, who also showed me the anatomy lab. Becoming a doctor suddenly seemed pretty cool. I am certain that Joy’s persistence in asking the admissions committee to invite me for an interview was the main reason I got a shot at becoming a physician.
I began medical school at 28, and I loved it. Selecting a residency was challenging, however, as I had numerous interests. I interviewed on a Friday for a radiology spot, and on a Saturday for an anesthesia spot at the same hospital, hoping that on Saturday I wouldn’t run into the program director I interviewed with on Friday. I also interviewed in rehab medicine and internal medicine. I was having trouble choosing my direction, and I was actually told by one of the interviewers that I was a “lost soul.”
As an intern in internal medicine I spent a few days shadowing an anesthesiologist, which turned out to be my watershed moment. It was then that I realized what I wanted to do.
After completing my anesthesia residency at the University of Virginia, I stayed on for another 7 years. I loved U.Va., loved the crazy cases and loved working with residents. However, I also spent all my time at U.Va., which was not compatible with the rest of my life. We had young children, and I liked spending time with my family, running and bike riding. It was getting very difficult to strike a balance between work and home life.
I joined Sentara Martha Jefferson in 2001, taking on the job of operating room (OR) medical director two years later. This was a newly created position, and I evolved with it. I had never held an administrative position before. I’ve learned a lot, including the ins and outs of medicine that have nothing to do with medicine and yet have everything to do with medicine.
Today, at Sentara Martha Jefferson, I feel like I lead two lives. When the OR door is closed, it’s like I’m in a sort of sanctuary. I love the teamwork, the adrenaline and the focus. I love working with the nurses, the OR staff and my surgeon friends. I love working with my anesthesia colleagues, who are—without question—some of the best people with whom I have ever worked. I never have a bad day in the OR, and I never feel like I don’t want to get up and go to work in the morning. In fact, I get excited when I know I have a complex case the next day.
Once I step out of the OR, it’s different—the chaos of administrative medicine, the policies, the meetings, the texts, the emails. … I admit that there are days when I feel like I’m the wrong person to handle that part of my job, when I’m slightly overwhelmed by it. But in some weird way, for the most part, I even love that aspect of my job and the people who constantly help me with it.
One of my daughters is currently in medical school. Many of my colleagues have asked me: “Why did you let her do that?” First of all, my daughters do what they want to do. And I personally would definitely do it all over again. I can’t think of anything else in the world that would be a better fit for me than being an anesthesiologist. When it comes down to taking care of patients in the OR, this job is extremely rewarding for me, personally and professionally.
My proudest “achievement,” I guess, is being living proof that lost souls can get where they want to get and have fun getting there. Life isn’t a sprint—it’s a marathon. Being a lost soul can be a good thing.