I breathed in. The smoke entered my lungs but somehow seemed to float much further into my body and heighten even the touch of my fingertips. At one point there was a time when I believed cigarettes were the single worst thing for one’s body, but a few more years of education and beginning medical school had brought me to the realization that I need not worry about myself right then.
We were all gathered around a low, square table towards teh back of the bar. Joe and his new colleague/fiancée Shannon joined Tom and me late as expected. The cigarettes, or drinks for that matter, were not needed, but they were a common plaything for everyone at the table. Joe, Tom and I had all grown up together on Brierate Lane. Joe and Tom became surrogate big brothers to me after years of keeping an eye out for the one little pig-tailed girl running around with the neighborhood boys. Growing up, the gang was consistently changing as some would squabble, parents would move and more of the like; however, our three families all managed to remain. As we made it through college, coming home for breaks and holidays became an anticipated reunion time for us. My recent decision to follow their tracks to medical school only brough us closer.
“Anyway, Julie,” Joe interrupted, “my father tells me to specialize. That and how academics are the only true ways to ensure control over billing. And without that, what is there to medicine?” His slanted eyes gleamed through his unkempt brown hair as he began talking about his favorite subject. Joe had sat down and quickly changed the conversation from my prodding of Tom about his recent experiences in the ER. Joe was in his final year of medical school and the prospect of graduating and earning a paycheck was the most fascinating thing ever.
His wife-to-be Shannon sat across the table and deeply exhaled from the cigarette she was enjoying. Her brown wavy locks of hair nodded in agreement and she turned to me as she assented, “It really is the way to go. With all the insurance nonsense getting a hold over physicians as they have, it’s no wonder that physicians’ salaries cannot increase at the same rate.”
I leaned in and listened, taking in every word. I was still at the beginning of my journey through medical school and, like a sponge, wanted to soak up every bit of wisdom I could gather from my friends.
“Especially considering the hours,” Tom agreed. Usually more soft spoken than Joe, I listened to Tom’s carefully chosen words. “The time expectations are surreal! It’s pretty crazy.” Now that the topic had switched focus from his recent clinical experiences, he appeared more enthusiastic.
“Hey, you know what too? If everything works out, then I can get a new beamer to cruise around the city in,” Joe continued. “What do you think, black? His face glowed as he spoke to us. Unlike my earlier questions as to dealing with patients, this was so much easier and exciting to talk about.
Tom appeared more eager and spurted out, “Oh, and have you seen this new model?”
The growing ado was infectious. Shannon began drumming her fingers and turned to me and said, “You must get this when you graduate, with leather seats. It’s absolutely amazing!”
The conversation at the table then proceeded to buzz over future cars, boats, and vacations. Everyone grew excited and hours went by filled with the thoughts of our future ownings. Abruptly I wondered, what happened to excitement over being a doctor?
I sat back and reflected. Here we were, joined by our history and current struggle through medical school. Except that they were ahead and I was trying to follow their paths. But where I was headed? The dreams I had a few months ago in my first lectures of saving lives were far from our smoky table. What happened to our common desire to help and care for others?
I remembered first feeling an interest in medicine during college. And it was my experiences in the hospital, especially my exposure to patients, which made the experience so valuable. I remember once meeting a little girl who was transferred to our hospital for surgery. She was extremely thin and fragile but her face was full of smiles. She smiled and held her mother’s hand, whispering, “Don’t worry mama, everything will be okay.” I was stunned with the mixed emotions I felt in response to this little child and inspired by her bravery. I then believed that it was the patients that would excite me and make medicine so satisfying for me.
However, this was not what was resonating in the conversation flooding my ears. Cars, vacations, and as we sat with drink and cigarette in hand, how much did we value the same life that we would be working so hard to save? And I too was drawn in and even aroused by the conversation. Was the drain of four years so taxing that it left my friends with little else than material possessions to talk about? Everyone had told me that medical school changes you, but I never knew exactly how or why. Was this part of the change and did it happen to everyone? I excused myself from the table and made my way to the washroom. Icy water stung as I splashed it over my face. I needed to stay awake.