Spring 2019

Alumni on How Being a Doctor Brings Joy

How does being a doctor bring you joy?

Mental Health Issue

  • 12 minute read

Shirley Driscoll, a pioneer in the fields of perinatal, fetal, and placental pathology and the sixth female professor appointed to HMS, joined some medical students for an outdoor break during orientation day in 1987.

Samuel Kim, MD ’62

I find joy in my interactions with patients, parents, students, and other health care personnel.

Richard B. Dobrow, MD ’62

I have been retired for nine years, yet I still recall that it was the interactions with patients and seeing their success that brought me the biggest enjoyment.

Joseph McCabe, MD ’74

It is a joy to provide assistance to people in need, to see people get better, and to have satisfying professional relationships and intellectual challenges.

Donald Dillon, MD ’59

I retired in 1992 after working as a physician for thirty years. A combination of things—the practice of oncology, the 1986 death of my wife from cancer, and a demanding night and weekend call schedule—prevented me from enjoying being a doctor. It all, in fact, led to burnout and some depression.

Carl Needy, MD ’49

It brings me joy to help patients get better.

John Merrifield, MD ’59

I am retired. My greatest pleasure when seeing patients was listening to their stories, clarifying, occasionally helping. My best job was in a community mental health center.

Lloyd Hamilton, MD ’54

Being a physician, taking care of a patient, is still one of the greatest joys of my life. Seeing them feel better and able to live a more enjoyable life ranks with seeing the same in my children. If the patient is grateful, I admit that it adds to the joy, but it is not a necessary ingredient.

Kaihi Fung, MD ’82

In general, a physician is able to help people and that should bring joy. In particular, I am a general surgeon. Work that I do tends to bring immediate satisfaction.

Richard Aadalen, MD ’65

The personal gratification that comes from helping patients is tremendous.

William Kupsky, MD ’78

As a neuropathologist, my greatest joy is solving diagnostic problems and interacting with neurology and neurosurgery residents as we explore the brain together.

Carolyn Aldredge, MD ’63

My continued interaction with patients, their concerns and joys, brings me joy.

Bruce Barnett, MD ’75

I am happiest when I am able to help another person.

Howard Rubenstein, MD ’57

I am now 87 years old, and long retired, so I have to remember how being a physician brought me joy.
Actually, it is easy to remember.

Joy: A rotating internship at the Los Angeles County General Hospital. Rotating internships are now extinct. I think that’s unfortunate. How can a young physician make a good choice of residency without sampling during internship nearly everything medicine has to offer?
Joy: Doing research in the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology at HMS in the laboratory of Albert Coons, MD ’37. Searching for endotoxin with fluorescent antibodies brought both scientific and aesthetic satisfaction.
Sorrow: Not becoming another Paul Ehrlich.
Joy: Learning as an apprentice to John Harter (I think I may be the last apprenticed physician in the United States).
Joy: Appointed chief of allergy and physician to the Harvard University Health Services and not having a single asthmatic death, nor a single lawsuit, during my many years in practice there. John Brooks, MD ’43, the famous surgeon, taught me how to avoid lawsuits: “Always admit your mistakes to the patient and his or her family, and apologize for them. Never be defensive or attempt a cover-up.” That advice has worked for me.
Joy: To be invited in 1984 as a member of the first group of allergists and clinical immunologists to visit the People’s Republic of China, to lecture—and learn—Chinese medicine, and to tour China.
Joy: Spending a summer as an internist at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti. I learned tropical medicine and got to treat the three major illnesses in Haiti: malnutrition, tuberculosis, and neonatal tetanus. Papa Doc had already wiped out yaws with compulsory penicillin.
Sorrow: I developed tinnitus, dysequilibrium, and deafness. My family and I had to leave the snow and ice of Massachusetts and move to a warm climate. I did not wish to give up practicing some form of medicine, so I searched for a job reading medical records in California and, in 1989, ended up in San Diego doing disability evaluations under Social Security.
Joy: Disability under Social Security is a legal program, and I learned some law, which I enjoyed, and I discovered, to my delight, and contrary to popular belief, that most people applying for disability are honest.
Joy: The privilege of being a physician and of having an interesting and varied career as one. There were opportunities for making good fits between my work and me along the way, and I was rarely troubled by an interfering management. I can’t help wondering if not having such opportunities and not having good fits contribute to burnout.

John A. Stanley, MD ’58

It’s the people that bring me joy—both the patients and the students.

Joseph Burnett, MD ’58

I was a professor, so I enjoyed my residents and students. All my papers and books allowed me 153 trips abroad and an appointment as a visiting professor of zoology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

Mary Flowers, MD ’78

I was a joyful physician in my remote past. Now the role as a provider sucks—no joy, no challenges, no excitement, no connection to “clients,” formerly known as patients.

George Ryan Jr., MD ’53

The pleasure of serving patients and earning their trust and respect bring me joy. I also have an MPH from Harvard and have worked as full-time faculty on public health issues and enjoyed some success.

Roy C.A. (Chris) Weatherley-White, MD ’58

I have found joy when operating on infants, here and abroad, who have cleft lip and palate anomalies. Receiving the gratitude of parents and knowing you’ve made a profound difference in a human’s life is satisfaction enough.

Sylvester (Skip) Sviokla III, MD ’72

In 1999, I lost nearly everything to opioid and alcohol addiction. Fortunately, I didn’t lose my family. Working to regain my health and dignity has allowed me a second run at healing by using my experience and newly acquired knowledge in addiction medicine to help others. Being an HMS-trained physician has brought me joy and has provided me opportunities that I have grabbed with gusto, as detailed in my memoir, From Harvard to Hell … and Back. I’ll be working until I reach room temperature.

Brandon Lujan, MD ’02

Partnering with patients to understand what is happening to their retina and how treatment is affecting the outcome is tremendously gratifying. Even if I cannot improve someone’s vision, I find that when they understand their disease and the rationale for treatment, they are able to accept their disease and move forward with their lives despite their limitations.

Joseph Barr, MD ’60

Being respected by patients and friends brings me joy. So does rebuilding patients with new knees and hips to improve their quality of life.

Hugh Hermann, MD ’54

My mission is “paying it forward” to the Woodstock, New Hampshire, community and to Dartmouth Medical School for their support of primary care medicine for more than sixty years. This brings me so much joy and is why I still teach and practice.

Ernest Bergel, MD ’56

Being a doctor gives me a sense of purpose in life, which is not so easy to achieve at my age. I greatly enjoy my contacts with my psychiatric outpatients, in part because I am exclusively in private practice and not exposed to institutional or financial pressures.

Richard Hirschhorn, MD ’58

It brings me joy to feel I possess skills unavailable to others.

The brilliance, enthusiasm, creativity, optimism, and commitment of this next generation of physicians and scientists is inspiring and keeps me going on long days.

Samuel L. Katz, MD ’52

I find joy in helping others.

Nathan Selden, MD ’93

I enjoy caring for patients, performing surgical procedures, and seeing the benefit when patients return to clinic. Some of my patients still send me annual messages twenty years after the episode of care I was involved in. I enjoy teaching young people, witnessing their enthusiasm, and seeing their maturity and experience grow.

Victor Connell, MD ’74

Given that I started practicing medicine when physicians were more autonomous and there was more time spent in patient interaction than in documentation, there has not been much joy in the latter part of my medical career.

The joyful part of practicing medicine is that it can be a lifelong journey that is intellectually stimulating and constantly changing and that it can allow you the opportunity to interact with and assist other people in a meaningful and special way.

Tamara Fountain, MD ’88

I enjoy listening to people’s stories. I feel honored to witness the tenderness in the way an adult child ministers to a frail parent in the exam room. I feel needed when I can bring some level of reassurance and comfort to a patient who is frightened and overwhelmed—even if I can’t fix their problem. And what about the gratitude of our patients? I’ve saved every card and note a patient has ever written me. If I ever need reassurance or comfort, those notes will remind me that I made a difference.

It feels good to give the gift of improved health to a person. Their gratitude and appreciation (and we don’t always get a warm-fuzzy validation of our efforts!) are like an elixir, a drug. It’s also a remarkable opportunity to interface with people from all walks of life who’ve worn different shoes on their life’s journey than I have. It’s too easy to retreat into one’s protected domain with friends and family who share your views. Patients do a good job of taking us out of these comfort zones.

Elizabeth Henske, MD ’85

The mentoring of students, postdoctoral fellows, and clinical fellows is a continued source of joy in my career. The brilliance, enthusiasm, creativity, optimism, and commitment of this next generation of physicians and scientists is inspiring and keeps me going on long days.

Marshall Ruffin Jr., MD ’78

My joy comes from using my understanding of physiology, pathophysiology, and medicine to help people live healthier and happier lives. Twice in my life, I was nearly killed, first at age 13 in a mountain climbing accident and then a car accident at age 15. Both times, medical treatment kept me alive and allowed me to recover. I grew up wanting to know how to practice medicine and how to help others with a knowledge of medicine. My focus now is on precision medicine and predictive analytics.

Stephen Friedland, MD ’57

I retired from pediatric practice sixteen years ago, but I still run into former patients and parents of former patients who, I feel, are genuinely glad to see me and share experiences of their lives since I last treated them. I feel that my time in practice was well spent.

John Welch, MD ’68

It is such a joy to unexpectedly meet a person who says something like “You saved my life” or “You operated on me for such and such an illness, and I have done well since.” As a retired surgeon who once dealt with a number of patients with acute surgical conditions, I felt joy and satisfaction in those moments for a job well done.

Rita Charon, MD ’78

I closed my practice after thirty-four years as a general internist. During that early July when I no longer had a clinic, I felt relief. Someone else was worrying about Lucy. And then, quietly, came the loss of the opportunities for kindness‚ helping an old woman on with her socks, calling a family member without being asked, planting the PPD skin test myself. More real than empathy, kindness is unnecessary, uncounted, and mutually nourishing. Being physicians gives us the joy of an overflowing account.

William (Jay) Ericson, MD ’83

I find joy in being required—and able—to conjure up all of the knowledge I have obtained in training and in practice and apply it to a patient with a long, complicated medical history and multiple vague complaints who is in dire need of a real diagnosis and a rational treatment plan that will reliably relieve their symptoms. Being able to do this on a daily basis is a career filled with joy.

David Fogelson, MD ’77

I am an expert psychopharmacologist, but prescribing medication is not what brings me joy. Joy comes to me when I listen to my patients’ stories and validate their life experience. I tell every patient that, just as their fingerprint is unique, so is their brain and their story. Because genomics is not yet able to inform what their unique treatment should be, the art of medicine has to come up with the medication cocktail that restores them to full function. Joy comes when it does!

Richard Peinert, MD ’73

This answer is short and easy. There are not many professions that allow you to ask at the end of the day, “Did I make something or someone better,” and to usually be able to answer, “Yes.”

Samyukta Mullangi, MD ’15

Being a physician means that I never have a boring work day. I find that every patient I meet is interesting and complex in his or her own way. During my nonclinical time, I ponder what the future of health care will look like, or, more precisely, how technology will revolutionize care processes and pathways. Having that balance between the immediacy of patient care and the long-term outlook of research makes the job fascinating.

Gordon Bae, MD ’16

It’s a joy to see the dramatic improvement in a patient’s quality of life when a disease is well controlled and to reassure patients by providing them with a clear plan of action and then see the amount of stress and fear they had decrease or disappear. The gratitude patients express for the work that I do brings me joy. So does working alongside and developing meaningful relationships with fantastic people who make going to work fun (co-residents, faculty, nurses, and others in medicine).

Image: Harvard Medical School, Office of Communications and External Relations. M-AD06. Harvard Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.