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Crooked Lines

Sara DuMond, M.D.

I got invited a year or so ago, to talk to a bunch of really bright high school students, about a career in medicine. It was for a National Science Honor Society chapter meeting, and when I walked into the room, about 60 eager sets of eyes were camped out in a small cramped classroom, waiting to hear me slay some magic words at them about what the magic formula is for getting into med school. You know…let them in on some top secret combination of the magic SAT scores, the magic number of community service hours, the magic kind of volunteer and shadowing experiences, and the magic GPA, that might propel them into what (I suspect) many of them view as a top-tier profession, therefore requiring top-tier academic prowess, and top-tier planning during their sophomore and junior years of high school. OK. Can I just say, that when I was a sophomore and junior in high school, I was more worried about whether or not my parents were going to let me go to the Bon Jovi concert, than what my future career was going to entail? And I’ll take it a step further, and say that even when I was a sophomore and junior in college, I was still more worried about figuring out a way to record episodes of Melrose Place than I was about how I was going to best position myself to get into med school. So you can imagine the mental struggle I was having as I was preparing what I wanted to say to these fresh-faced, really brilliant kids. Blame it on the mid-forties-loss-of-verbal-filter (Oh, you haven’t gotten there yet? Just wait. It’s a lot of fun…), or maybe it was the inspirational podcast I had just listened to, or probably it was the glass of wine (or two) that I treated myself to, as I sat down the night before, to jot down some thoughts. Whatever the reason, I WENT ROGUE. I did. I went rogue. And it was the best time I’ve ever had talking at a career day. (I’ve done a few…) I’m suspicious that it was also maybe the best time the kids had ever had listening to a guest speaker on career day. They certainly didn’t break eye contact. And there were lots of questions at the end. Lots.

So what did I tell them? I told them my story. And that story sounded like this.

During the spring of my junior year in high school, I went to the mandatory meeting with my guidance counselor to plan out my senior class schedule. “So, Sara, you’ve put it off and put it off, but you’re going to have to take Chemistry 1 in order to graduate next year,” she said to me. “What?!” I cried. “That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard. I am never going to do anything in my life that requires me to know anything about science. I hate science. This a a crock. This completely sucks,” I said to her. Melodrama was my M.O. back in those days. (Quiet in the peanut gallery…ahem…Dave DuMond). My guidance counselor went on to say that it was either Chemistry 1 or Physics 1, but there was basically no escaping taking one of these two science classes if I wanted to graduate, regardless of whether or not I was planning on becoming an actress, a Supreme Court judge, or an astronaut. I took what I thought was the path of least resistance (Chemistry over Physics), and I kid you not, during the ’89-’90 school year, my friend Meg and I were the only two seniors in this introductory science class filled with underclassmen. (We actually managed to turn it into a positive and worked that whole angle to our advantage, but that’s a different story for a different time…)

Needless to say, when I shot out of the blocks with this story, it garnered me lots of laughter out of this room full of National Science Honor Society superstars. Feeling good about where the talk was heading, I then turned to the white board and began to draw a little visual for them that I felt best illustrated my life trajectory from junior in high school to now. The visual ultimately looked something like this. (There were a few arbitrary “points” thrown in there, but the shape of the line was key point):


Here was the rest of my story. While I stomped my feet and pitched a temper tantrum about hating science and having to take Chemistry to graduate, just a mere 15 months later, I was heading off to a college 3 states away, declaring myself to be a Biology major. (What can I say? Interests change. So do goals.) A year after that, I transferred to an entirely different college. (Thank you very much, high school romance crumbling under the weight of long-distance in college. Ask me if the guy I changed colleges for is the guy I married? Spoiler: Nope.) Two years after that, I decided I no longer wanted to be a biology major, and switched to Physical Therapy. Reason? Everyone else I knew who was a biology major was getting ready to apply to med school. And I chickened out. A Melrose Place lifestyle seemed like a much better fit for me at the time. A year after that, I changed my mind again, and decided I had sold myself short, and I actually did want to go to med school. Then came med school, and deciding on a specialty. For about a month I was convinced that I wanted to deliver babies and become an OB-Gyn. Then I realized I was actually more infatuated with the babies once they came out. Boom. Pediatrics. Then I moved to a new state (ironically the same state where I had originally gone to college for that one year, my freshman year). Then after residency I took a mainstream job. Then after 8 years, I got burned out and decided to open a kind of practice that no one else was doing or even was even talking about at that time. The take-home? Twists and turns aren’t always bad. In fact, almost everyone whom I admire and consider to be either a mentor or an expert in their field, has a story that involves heading off in one trajectory, and course-correcting to a different one. And most of the time, they didn’t even realize in the moment, that they were actually course-correcting. For a lot of us with a crooked line, it sure felt a lot like screwing up. Only looking back now, do I appreciate it for what it was: learning and growing.

I finished the talk, invited them to approach me before I left if they had any specific questions, and can I just say, that there was a line. I stayed for at least another hour, after the official talk was over, just answering questions, or hearing stories of these kids’ own crooked lines, or hearing stories of how they were agonizing over trying to make their crooked lines straight.

The take-home? Life isn’t always (or ever?) a straight line from point “A” to point “B” and anyone who tries to teach you, sell you, or convince you in some way, that it is, is just plain wrong. In my field, specifically, now more than ever, being authentic and transparent is literally what families and patients are craving. I suspect that is the case in almost any industry. At a time when it feels like we’re living in an “every man for himself” culture, I would argue that the world needs more crooked lines, because it’s ultimately our crooked lines that unite us. I, for one, plan on continuing to take the scenic route. And want to know another secret? It’s this exact thing that is propelling my success. If any of this resonates with you, stay tuned. I’ve got a lot to say…(Quiet in the peanut gallery!)

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