Last Updated on August 23, 2022 by Laura Turner
“So if you don’t mind me asking, why did you make the switch?”
I get that question quite often. I honestly never grow tired of answering it because that’s always when I launch into what rekindled my spark for being a physician.
I still remember running down the hallway, balancing on one foot, ferociously pulling on knee high booties while trying desperately to tie on a shield mask simultaneously. I was both excited and anxious, ecstatic and scared, because I was about to deliver life. I was about to be that person that introduces that life to mom, who has been waiting for this moment for months. Sure, that was absolutely the best part of being an OB/GYN, the part that you dream about as an eager medical student that just wants to finish medical school and finally become a doctor. But after my intern year, something in me changed. Over time I no longer had that fire and drive. I seemingly lost all motivation. I felt tired and defeated most days. I was definitely having more “bad days” than “good days”. Maybe I just didn’t have what it took to be a good doctor. Did I still want to even be a doctor anymore?
I was running in my neighborhood on a warm October morning my second year of OB/GYN residency. I was admiring the changing colors of the leaves and suddenly, the image of me poring over details of an axial pelvic CT scan popped into my head. How great would it be to be a radiologist? I could help a ton of patients in a small amount of time, and also help a lot of physicians in their diagnostic dilemmas as well.
I had rotated through radiology quite late in medical school, after finishing all my interviews for OB/GYN residency so I always had a great interest, but knew it was too late. After seemingly endless months, tremendous spousal support, what felt like a traumatic break-up, and lots of stressful waiting, I was extremely lucky to get accepted into a radiology residency spot at the same institution. I was elated. At the same time, I was so, so scared. I was petrified at changing my life so much, leaving behind the familiar, that I had “wasted” so much of my time training already. The biggest fear of course was that I wouldn’t like radiology either, that maybe, just maybe the world of medicine really wasn’t for me.
Nevertheless, I started reading about radiology right away. I relearned the circle of Willis, lesser trochanter muscle attachments, lymph node levels, and so on – things that I may not have thought much about in my years as an OB/GYN. I found that I really enjoyed learning about whole system disease processes and imaging findings and how to interpret them. Reading wasn’t a chore, it was really fun because I was so eager to gain knowledge and prove to myself that I could be a really great radiologist.
This need to prove myself and not disappoint the people who helped me obtain the residency position kept me going when I finally started on July 1. I always came to the reading rooms early and stayed late or until I was excused because I wanted to make sure no one was stuck with leftover studies on the list. Any answers that I didn’t know while reading out studies with my attending, I went home and pored over books and articles to make sure I remembered it the next time. I attended every conference I could and always paid attention at every one because the lectures reinforced concepts that I had just read about. Within a year, I had completed numerous projects including multiple educational exhibits presented at various national conferences, publications, research, and quality improvement projects. Academic projects were things that I never thought I would be so involved in, but I found that it was so fulfilling working on every one that I keep picking up more projects happily. Even during my limited interactions with patients, I had even more sympathy and ran that extra mile for them because honestly, I just really missed interacting with patients sometimes.
Now I am definitely not trying to say that OB/GYN was what made me lose my spark for becoming a physician. It was that unfortunately, it just wasn’t for me anymore and maybe it never was for me. I will always have the utmost respect and admiration for the OB/GYNs and the OB/GYN nurses and staff because they are the most selfless human beings and so wonderful at what they do. My realization that I needed to change my life was the catalyst for making me a better physician and I will always have OB/GYN to thank for that.
A few months ago, I met a lovely woman on my breast imaging rotation. She presented to the clinic with a new palpable mass in her left breast and bilateral axillary lymphadenopathy that looked very suspicious on imaging. She also happened to be 34 weeks pregnant. Sadly, her biopsy yielded invasive ductal carcinoma. She returned to clinic later that week to have her lymph nodes biopsied and this time we had good news – her contralateral lymph nodes were cancer free. When I came back alone to tell her, she burst into tears because she had lots of questions – not questions about her cancer, but questions about her pregnancy. She wanted to know if she would be able to hold her baby after he was delivered, if she would be able to breastfeed, if she would lose her hair from chemotherapy. Thanks to my background training, I was able to answer each and every one of her questions. And because of that, I have another reason to be eternally grateful to the practice of OB/GYN.
I tell those that ask me why I made the switch, that sometimes in your life, there will be moments that you have to make a life-changing choice. Change is scary because you know you are about to embark on the unknown. But the unknown can be a good thing because it can lead to the life you didn’t know you wanted. I always say, it truly never is too late to really try something different because time and experience is never really “wasted”, that time always adds to knowledge and value. After all, it was that experience and drastic change in my life that made me realize that I was correct all along. I didn’t have what it took to be a good doctor – I discovered I had the potential to be a great doctor. It just happened to take a switch to get there.
Curious what happened after she made the switch? Check out the follow-up article “The Residency Switch – An Update.”
Karen Tran-Harding MD is a Radiology physician at the University of California, Irvine who is back home after 10 years of medical training in Kentucky. You can find her at howtheothersidethinks.com.