You feel kind of different when your dad brings an esophagus to show-and-tell. I was in kindergarten when my father thought educating 5 year olds about this distressing piece of physiology would be a good idea. Naturally, many of my classmates ran out of the room. I followed soon after, but I didn't understand why they were so upset. I remember thinking, "Don't they know that we all have an esophagus? It's not that strange." Once the initial shock faded, my dad was able to give his lesson, and the class was placated with circus-animal cookies.
Some kids went to the park or to other after-school activities; I hung out in my dad's workplace at the UCLA Center for the Health Sciences, eating Hershey's chocolate by the computers next to the Biohazard Level 2 laboratory and fooling around on the new T1 Internet. I spent a lot of time waiting for my physician/scientist parents to finish their meetings so we could head home. To pass the time, I'd play around and chat with the other researchers in the lab or continue to gobble chocolates or munch on Dem Bones candies. Generally, the adults in the room talked in medical-ese jargon, and it sounded to me something like the unintelligible squawks of adults on the Peanuts TV specials. In that sense, my life wasn't so different from that of my friends.
Like most of my peers, I admired my parents and wanted to be like them - both are physicians, as were a great-grandfather, grandfather, uncle, two aunts and a couple cousins. Being a doctor seemed like something everyone did, or could do. Science, for the most part, came naturally to me; anything I didn't understand could be explained by any number of family members. I liked to ask them about DNA and genetics and how cells were like mini factories and to tell me stories about old scientists. They would humor me for a bit, but then switch topics to music, food, art or politics. Not much for "talking shop," they preferred to talk about ideas and the non-work parts of life. I loved those discussions.
After high school, I went to Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a wonderful experience, but I struggled with my identity as a student. Instead of wide-ranging discussions like those around the dinner table in my home, the focus of all these hard-charging collegians was on ambition - becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman. That was difficult for me, and I bridled some in this new environment.
I was oriented, perhaps genetically so, toward medicine, but I wanted to show off the other parts of myself that had been so important - my interests in music and social justice and the value of friendship - and shrug off the science. I thought about exploring music or working in green energy. But when it came time to consider my next steps, something intangible pushed me toward medicine.
I prepared my applications and interviewed at different medical schools, and I wrestled with my reasons for wanting to become a doctor. I asked members of my family why they became doctors, and each had his or her own reason. But there were common threads. They talked about humility and subsuming oneself into something larger as you try to heal a fellow human being. And they talked about the deep responsibility one takes on when called upon to make difficult decisions. Above all, they talked about a sense of honor and love of the work. I wanted something that would bridge my aptitude with a purpose and larger meaning, and to me this sounded wonderful. I knew that as I progressed, I would develop an even greater appreciation of the contributions that I could make.
I was accepted at UCLA and came home to Los Angeles. There was something almost surreal about returning. The buildings I had known as a child had not changed, but they felt distinctly different. The adults who squawked medical-ese now were the ones teaching me anatomy. The laboratory researchers I had known now were in my classrooms giving lectures to me. The hallways that had been my playground now were my workspace. The labs were places of intense learning. The adults in white coats who had thought I was a super-cute kid now called me their student. And I could no longer eat chocolate by the biohazard rooms.
Today I am a responsible member of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and when I go home for dinner with my family, they ask me about what I have learned, and they comment on how much has changed since they were in my place. We still talk about many different things, but now they are more interested in discussing medicine with me - now it is my commitment and not just a curiosity.
As I continue on this journey, I'm asked about what I see for my future and the kind of doctor I want to become. "A good one," I say. But that's dancing around the inevitable. People go in all kinds of different directions when they leave medical school, as evidenced by the wildly varied careers of my family. Everything contains its own wonder, challenges and pressures. And now I am grateful that my classmates and friends don't run to the bathroom when an esophagus is presented - and that my dad is not the one waving it around in class.