An astute reader has noted that accounts of my soi-disant “straight-forwardly conventional” plod through life skim over the less than straight-forward jump from earning a BA in English to entering medical school three months later, and has asked for an explanation.
First of all, being a doc, at least in the 70s, wasn’t a bad gig: physicians performed important work, were paid well, and were generally respected. Health insurance companies issued checks instead of denials, and a “MD” after ones name could, on occasion, garner an otherwise unavailable restaurant reservation. To a kid from the Ozarks, this was, if not the good life, a reasonable substitute that would serve until the real thing came along.
In addition to these standard reasons to choose medicine as a vocation, there were a couple of other compelling factors.
1. My draft lottery number was #19, a ranking that offered me the opportunity to supplement my knowledge of iambic pentameter, my expertise in reciting Chaucer in the original Middle English, and my insight into the overvaluation of Baudelaire’s influence on T.S. Eliot with the ability to field-strip an M-16 and wade through chest-high swamp water in Viet Nam. There was, I admit, an allure to the notion of learning the doctoring trade while indefinitely deferring the chance to be all that I could be. (I was never clear on the benefits of being all that I could be if that included being a target for enemy snipers or a preferential host for intestinal parasites indigenous to southeast Asia.)
2. When my father (my dad, by the way, was a unsuccessful farmer who built an impressively profitable business buying used cars in Flint, Michigan and wholesaling them to dealers in Missouri and Oklahoma; I suspect he knew I didn’t have what it took to follow in his footsteps – although it remains my contention that I could have handled the failed farmer bit) asked me what I intended to do with my life, I replied with my whim du jour, “I’ll go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in English Literature.” My father’s next question, spoken without a trace of irony, was, “OK, how much does that pay?” After my explanation that payment, vis-à-vis graduate school, was a flow of funds from student to learning institution rather than vice-versa, he offered to pay for my future schooling if and only if it eventuated in a medical or law degree. (The easy part of my decision was based on the observation that the Feds were drafting lawyers and deferring doctors.) As it turns out, there was a substantial gap between my interpretation of “pay for my future schooling” (i.e., he would pay for my tuition and books, living expenses, and associated costs) and his definition of that concept (i.e., he would lend me a car and feed me gratis when I came home for Thanksgiving), but by the time that difference was evident, I was ensconced in my first year of medical school.
So, the reasons behind my choice of medical school were perhaps complex but not atypical. Why a medical school accepted me is quirkier.
Happily, one of that era’s political fads coincided with my application to medical school. Several predominantly rural states were then harrumphing about their tax-supported medical schools producing doctors who preferentially migrated to urban centers rather than to the underserved countryside. Consequently, state-supported medical schools were threatened with reductions in funding unless they accepted more students from rural areas of the state because – and here is the bizarre part, so pay attention – those individuals would become MD’s who would return to practice in the areas where they were raised. It is but to snicker. Why, one might hypothetically query those legislators lounging around Jefferson City (Missouri’s capital), do you think an overachieving student who survived growing up on a southwestern Missouri farm most suitable for growing bumper crops of rocks and then managed to get through the local facsimile of a college would want to go to medical school in the first place? Well, the answer to me was obvious: (1) To be a doctor for all the aforelisted reasons (2) To exchange the rustic rigors of country living for the bright lights and dark temptations of the city. As Homer Simpson (who, coincidentally enough, resembled the legislator from our district) would say, “D’oh.” In any case, I suspect that sending my application from an address that included “Rural Route 5” significantly enhanced my prospects of being accepted at the University of Missouri Medical School.
A second serendipitous political trend in the early 1970’s was the pursuit of diversity, which led medical schools to vigorously recruit not only underrepresented racial and gender groups but also – believe it or not – otherwise qualified scholars who were not science jocks, a position for which I was eminently qualified. On the day I received my letter of acceptance to medical school, I had a total of five hours of traditional pre-med science courses, three of which were a required General Biology course; at that time, my transcript also boasted six hours of Bible courses.
The final stroke of my master plan required the shrewdness to be randomly matched for my med school entrance interview with a Dean who was an expatriated New Yorker with a penchant for political involvement. When he unexpectedly asked why I had not elaborated on one of my few extracurricular activities, serving as Chief Justice on my college’s Student Court, I was too taken aback to fabricate a believable, self-aggrandizing explanation and replied, truthfully, that is was political patronage. In support of a friend of mine who was a candidate for student body president, I published a few editions of an underground, muckraking newspaper. When he won, he offered me my choice of appointments and Chief Justice had the most grandiloquent title with the least work (I did manage to refrain from blurting out that last part). That, apparently, was the right answer or, perhaps, the secret word of the day.
Note: Originally posted May 2, 2006 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com