August 1, 2011
On the Origin of “Doctor”s by Means of Dr. Peter Sullivan, or the Inspiration of Angela Wen in BISC 499 for Global Health
by Angela Wen
I won’t pretend that I didn’t enter the summer of 2011 with a certain feeling of dread. I had just made it out of my second year in college with my lowest cumulative GPA to date. I had woken up every morning for the past year reluctant to go to any courses whose names began with BISC, CHEM, or PHYS; reluctant even to volunteer at the molecular biology research laboratory for which I had signed up. Even Physiology, a course that came with the highest of recommendations, taught by arguably one of the best professors of the department, failed to help push me to continue on my chosen pre-medical path.
There had never been a time before in which I had needed more of a push. I felt stagnant, uninspired. In my personal journal, I wrote that I was going through a “mid-college, quarter-life crisis.”
This was the reason I felt a sinking feeling every time I thought of my plans for the summer. To any student of sound mind, they were good (no, better than good—phenomenal) plans. I was to shadow my sister, an emergency medicine resident, at Massachusetts General Hospital for a month. From Boston, I would fly to Europe, arriving at my final summer destination: the BISC 499 Global Health program at the University of Oxford.
To me, however, the summer seemed fraught with impending disaster. After a long semester of studying Physiology, shadowing my sister and watching her make diagnoses and provide treatment sounded about as appealing as drinking a gallon of milk (and coming from someone who is lactose intolerant, that is pretty unappealing). And as for the Oxford Global Health program, I was afraid. Afraid of the BISC header, and afraid of the implications of the program.
It had always been a habit of mine to tell myself that the reason I wasn’t interested in my science courses, or doing as well as I would have liked, was that they weren’t directly related to medicine. As a medical student, I told myself, it would be better—I would have courses I’d be 150 percent interested in. I would take courses in the pathology of diseases and their treatment; I would be able to interact with patients instead of sitting in lectures all day.
As I looked at the syllabus of the lectures for the Global Health course, however, I realized that in this case, I would no longer have my go-to excuse to dislike the course. Every single one of the lectures would be clinically relevant. That, combined with the fact that it incorporated topics such as Maternal and Public Health, in which I had long fancied myself interested, meant that this would be about as close as I would get as an undergraduate to a medical school course. In fact, many of the lecturers deliver the same lectures to Masters of Global Health students, and—you guessed it—medical students as well. With this course, I would no longer be able to tell myself that it would get better-if even real medical lectures in global health, a subject I was genuinely interested in, did not provide me with sufficient motivation to wake myself up every morning, then I would need to, for the first time in my life, fully consider a change in my future career plans.
In my few dead weeks before my summer plans began, I did begin to consider what I would do if I were no longer interested in pre-health, just to detract from the shock value if I truly were disappointed by the Global Health course. What I came up with, teaching, was a passion that two years before could not hold a flame to my passion for medicine. Now, I seriously considered it.
Fortunately, both my sister’s preceptorship and the Global Health program have, in literally the most clichéd manner possible, inspired me to plod on in my way to the only career I can now imagine for myself: medicine.
I could talk about day-to-day life following a crazed second-year resident around and keeping up with her shifts. I could talk about each of the lectures we have heard, ranging from Obesity to HIV to even Dematology, and what I learned from each one. I could talk about how much I loved Boston, am still loving Oxford. Instead, I will leave my detailed (and wordy) accounts of those experiences to another day, another blog, and sum up everything that I have learned and been inspired by this summer by waxing on about just one lecture-lucky you.
This lecture was held on July 25, a Monday after our group had been to Stratford-upon-Avon, or for me as I write, just yesterday. Interestingly enough, the topic that had been provided to us was “Nutrition.” What Dr. Peter Sullivan did with the topic, though, exceeded my greatest expectations for a “Nutrition” lecture.
I had by then, a week into the course, been used to hearing of fairly hard-hitting and depressing global medical problems, their long-term consequences, and how integral it was that these problems received the proper amount of funding to carry out the costly solutions proposed for the status quo. This, Dr. Sullivan did no differently from his colleagues. He began by speaking of various forms of malnutrition in children of under-developed countries and the future medical problems caused by mineral deficiencies at such young ages, then of the great need for those of us in developed countries to reach out to the less fortunate.
What struck me about Dr. Sullivan and his talk was not so much the majority of his content, but the way he spoke to us—the optimism with which he presented. To conclude, he encouraged each and every one of us to take a stand in global health and poverty, because those in third-world countries are not so different from us in any way but geography. When asked about the feasibility of something so idealistic as spreading what he deemed the ultimate success: “longer, healthier, happier lives without functional losses,” to all parts of the world considering the exponential population boom versus the linear growth of food supply, he answered that we as humanitarians should not let such statistics deter us from doing what is, in essence, the right thing. (He also pointed out that, besides, global epidemics and wars would do their job at population control).
Dr. Sullivan’s brand of realistic optimism was, to me, a much-needed and welcomed contrast to the cynicism that has surrounded me since I began thinking about entering medicine. This cynicism comes in the form of whispers all around of pre-medical students only being in it for the future job stability or salary, or because of our parents; whispers that service trips during the breaks—I have personally been to two, one of which I am coordinating the coming school year—and other such ‘good causes’ are simply resume builders with no lasting effects; whispers that I have tried my best to ignore but permeate into the air of every pre-medical core curriculum class I take. In Dr. Sullivan, however, was a certainty that we in the course were all “good” people with humanity’s best interests in mind; a certainty that we should, and will, strive our hardest to fight global health inequalities; and a certainty that this fight can be won.
“Does anyone know what the word ‘doctor’ means?” Dr. Sullivan asked. “You all want to be one; do you know what the word means…in one word?”
“The word doctor,” he lectured, “is derived from the Latin word docere. It means ‘to teach.’ A doctor is a teacher.”
Twenty-four hours after Dr. Sullivan’s lecture, I sit in my dorm room at the end of the hall, certain that in the light of all that I have experienced and learned this summer, medicine will continue to be in my future. What has changed, I believe, is the hope with which I am now imbued. I have hope for the fact that my future medical school courses, just as these Global Health course is, will be engaging, enlightening, and inspiring. I have hope for myself as a future medical professional, when so recently the likelihood of my continuing down the former path seemed subzero. I have hope that inequalities in health can be fought successfully in the form of education, and that I can, should, and will engage myself in this fight.
After all, according to Dr. Sullivan and Latin epidemiology, I will not be sacrificing my passion for teaching at all; to the contrary, every day I will be educating my patients, both domestically and globally, in what I will be most knowledgeable about: health.
Thank you BISC 499 in Global Health and everyone affiliated with it: Dr. Sullivan and all his colleagues, Dr. Gellar, Ms. Haw, USC Dornsife, my classmates etc. for inspiring me this summer so that I can walk out of it and into my second half of undergraduate with my head held high, dreading nothing except, perhaps, Organic Chemistry B.
Angela Wen is a junior double majoring in biology in USC Dornsife and theatre in the USC School of Theatre. She is from Temple City, California.