On Becoming A Pediatrician

Educational requirements. To become a pediatrician you need to go to college after high school. (In college I took many diverse courses in order to be a well-rounded person, but there are requirements if you want to go on to medical school. Typically you need two courses in biology, four courses in chemistry, one year of foreign language and one year of advanced math.) Also you must take an exam to get into medical school called the MCATs which measures your general knowledge of science. Then you go on to medical school for four years. It was while I was in medical school that I decided to be a pediatrician after spending time in the pediatric part of the hospital. (You take an exam before graduation that gives you a license to practice medicine even though you are only first going to start an internship.) That is followed by three years of pediatric specialty training as an intern and resident. Then you get to be a pediatrician. Some doctors go on to do a “fellowship” which is 2-4 more years of training in a pediatric sub-specialty area such as pediatric cardiology or pediatric lung diseases, which was my area of fellowship training; there are many areas of special interest which can be followed.

The rewards. It is very rewarding to take care of kids. They laugh as much as they cry. They kiss and hug you. Also children are truly grateful when the pain is gone and they get better more easily compared with adults when they are sick. I like honesty and nothing compares to the pure openness of children.

The drawbacks. Being a pediatrician involves long hours and many on-call evenings and weekends. And it is not easy to just limit the type of care you have to give. I cannot just ignore the psychological and emotional aspects of a child’s physical condition. When you treat adults they can “compartmentalize” themselves and tell you about the part of the body that aches. Children can’t do that. Often this takes a lot of patience and time. Also sometimes your young patient can’t explain what is wrong and you have to be a detective and follow the clues to figure out what the problem is. (Actually I like working with families and investigating.)

A typical day. I get up each day at about 6 and get my kids ready for school. I check my messages at the office and then head out for hospital rounds – that’s where a doctor visits and checks on her sickest patients, and for a pediatrician that includes checking on the newborns. After I finish “my” hospitals (I cover three hospitals) I go to the office and begin a long day of treating patients who are either sick or come in for a well visit check up. All day I answer dozens of phone calls and arrange to see more kids if I think they need to be brought in to the office. At the end of the day at about 6, I return to the hospitals and then I go home. If it is a night when I am on call then I continue to answer calls. I carry a beeper and a portable phone at all times. Sometimes I work all weekend as well – particularly in the winter during flu season. (I also teach at one of the hospitals in order to help young doctors in training to become better doctors, and I try to go to lectures at other hospitals as often as I can.)

I tell young people that if they love children they should also consider being a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant. Of course being a schoolteacher is a good choice for someone who loves children and wants to improve their lives. Also, although I earn a decent salary it is far less than everyone assumes doctors earn. Actually pediatricians are the lowest paid of all medical specialists even though we usually work the longest hours. I guess the real rewards are not measurable in dollars and cents.

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