Thursday, June 9, 2011

Breaking the Mould

The context may change, but the question seems to remain the same. What do you want to be when you grow up?

On my way to Botswana, I stop over in Germany to visit some relatives in the Fatherland. I take a call at my hotel and a thick german accent on the other end asks me if I "vood like to have some-sing for supper". It's been almost three years since I last saw my Dad's family, so I think to myself: Why the hell not? I take the U-Bahn to a small restaurant and cafe looking out onto the Rhine, with a beautiful view of the Petersberg and the Drachenfels. The food's good (albeit a little expensive, but what isn't in Europe?), the dessert's great and the beer's bloody brilliant. The conversation seems to wander everywhere at once, from deteriorating politics to the German behind us with the perma-grin and hideous accent. But eventually, as it always seems to with people my age (no matter the language), comes the classic question: Welche Facher nimmst du in der Schule? (loosely translated - "Which subjects are you studying in school?").


I quickly list off a few of the courses I'm taking. They cock their heads and ask the expected follow-up: Und was machst du damit? ("And what are you doing with that?"). I grin - sardonically, because I know what must surely follow - and calmly tell them. A few forced smiles, a pat on the back, and being Germans with no sense of subtlety, one of them swallows their pride and asks the question that they're all trying hopelessly to suppress:Wie verdienst du Dir damit Dein Auskommen? ("How are you going to make a living with that?").

"The apple falls far from the tree". It's an expression that seems to define my life and follows me like a second shadow. As the eldest son of two respected doctors, med-school was the be-all, end-all and expected pinnacle of my academic career. And it's not as if I arbitrarily tossed the idea aside! I shadowed doctors, from family-clinic to OR, for several days - and neither appealed to me.


To give you an idea why, picture this. I'm following my dad's friend, a GP, for about a week. An elderly patient walks into his examination room near the end of the first day. I'm standing in the back, clipboard in hand, watching and ready to learn. She greets me, shakes my hand vigorously, and takes a seat on the sterilized bed. Dr. John Smith calmly and routinely asks her how she feels. She suddenly and unexpectedly breaks into tears. I'm taken aback, but the doctor keeps his composure and gently puts his hand on her shoulder, asking her what's wrong. She keeps blubbering, making it difficult to tell what the hell she's trying to say. But somehow, again, he understands what she's on about. "Where?" he asks, pulling out a box of Kleenex and handing it to her. She grabs a handful in her wrinkled hands and almost shoves them in her eye-sockets. She then rolls up her sleeve and proceeds to poke her left arm in different places, squealing in pain at every plushy prod. "Doctor," she sobs "I read up on Google that leukaemia manifests with easy bruising, and my entire arms hurts. See?" And she keeps poking and prodding at her arm. "Doctor," she starts to cry again "am I going to die?". Dr. Smith, straight-faced, holds out his hand. She shoots him a confused look, until he quickly asks her for her right arm. "But it's my left!" she explains hurriedly. He nods, and says simply "Your right, please." Through her sobs, she reluctantly extends her right and he slowly grabs her hand. He then gently squeezes her right index finger and she screams in pain, looking at him as if he had just escaped an insane asylum. "You've broken your finger." The good doctor explains, "Give me a minute, while I get my prescription pad and a splint."

Trying (and failing) desperately not to laugh, I think to myself that if I have to spend my life listening to that kind of half-assed, cathartic complaining - I'd end up giving a gun a blowjob by age 30. Maybe that makes me a selfish person, but I believe there's more than one way to help people. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate what it means to dedicate your life to the wellbeing of others. I know better than most that doctors give their lives (not literally, but figuratively) for others. As a kid growing up in the UK, I barely saw my parents. Nannies came and went, as my parents spent days at a time at the hospital just to keep food on the table - not for a third BMW. However, medicine isn't for me. Both my parents admit that medicine is no longer the noble profession it once was. Lawyers and giant firms sit on the sidelines scrutinizing your every case, waiting and hoping for that one tiny mistake that they can screw you for. Medicine's no longer a calling, my dad often says, it's become a membership card.


So, back to the dinner table, the entire table looks at me wide-eyed as I explain my reasoning. Jaws drop as I explain my career-intentions. For Christ's sake, I'm not selling my body! (Although it would probably pay better...) My Grandmother swallows her cheesecake and manages to say "Aber, deine Eltern, sie sind beide Artzte!" (But your parents are both doctors!).

Yeah, in a way, I'm breaking the mould. My mum was born and raised in an apartheid South Africa, drilled ad nauseum to believe that she was worth less than a bottle of scotch. She was expendable; existing only to perform the menial tasks deemed below the Whites. Her family, a tight-knit bunch, never strayed from their own race, let alone the country itself. But, where most of her family was limited to teaching, she worked her ass off and was accepted into med-school, as a non-white woman in a paternalistic, apartheid system. Not only did she become a widely respected anaesthetist, but she married my dad: a towering, white, pure-bred German who had disobeyed his class-conscious, neo-conservative family by running away to marry my mother. They weren't supposed to meet, let alone marry, but those two rebels have been married over 20 years now and from that point of view I have to ask myself: am I really breaking the mould?

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