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As a young doctor in my 20s, I landed with one of the country's leading endocrinologists on a fellowship. My passion for study hadn’t abated. I had already finished one two-year residency and passed the boards in internal medicine. At that time, in the early '70s, a resident needed a good fellowship just to make ends meet, and I had a young family to support. But I wasn’t happy in my work. My supervisor was overbearing, and all my time was spent in his laboratory, either injecting rats with iodine or dissecting them to see how the iodine had affected them.
Endocrinology, the study of the hormones secreted by the endocrine system, is a precise, technical specialty. I was more enthusiastic about seeing patients than toiling in the lab, but I was still fascinated by the detective work. Forty years later, the investigation of the three hormones secreted by the thyroid gland seems very basic, but at the time the fact that my supervisor was one of the pioneers in studying the Reverse T3 hormone was big news. We worked in an atmosphere of tense one-upmanship, competing with other research teams in the field — the thyroid was supposed to be our whole world.
My discontent came to a head during a routine staff meeting. My supervisor quizzed me on a technical detail in front of the group: “How many milligrams of iodine did Milne and Greer inject into the rats in their 1959 paper?” This referred to some seminal experimental work, but I answered offhandedly, because he didn’t really want the information, only to put me on the spot.
“Maybe two-point-one milligrams. I’ll look it up.”
“This is something you should have in your head,” he barked, irritated. Everyone in the room grew quiet.
I got up, walked over to him, and dumped a bulky file of papers on him.
“Now you have it in your head,” I said, and walked out.
I was agitated. I walked out to the parking lots and fumbling to start my beat-up Volkswagen Beetle, the signature vehicle of struggling young professionals. My supervisor followed me fuming, screaming at me, "your career is ruined".
He leaned in, speaking with studied control to disguise his anger.
“Don’t,” he warned. “You’re throwing away your whole career. I can make that happen.”
Which was quite true. The word would go out, and with his disapproval I had no future in endocrinology. But in my mind I wasn’t walking away from a career. I was standing up to someone who had tried to humiliate me in front of the group. My impulsive rebellion was instinctive and yet very unlike me.
I managed to start my Beetle Volkswagon and left him standing there in the hospital.
Word did go out, and I faced the prospect of having no job except for any moonlighting work that might come my way, the lowest paying drudgery in Boston medicine. Pain would follow. I knew this less than five minutes down the road. It made me stop off at a bar before going home to break the devastating news to my wife Rita.
In religion there’s an old saw: No one is more dangerous to the faith than an apostate. Boston medicine was the true faith. I had no intention of renouncing it. If you had questioned me the day before I dumped a file on an eminent doctor’s head, I would have sworn allegiance. Frankly I had no reason to change sides, not rationally. You don’t walk away from a church when there is no other church to go to. But the only way to see if there are demons lurking outside the circle is to crawl over the boundary that protects you. This was the real start of a revelatory life. I can’t take credit for any of the revelations, but a hidden force inside me was invisibly preparing the way.
Yet, I did change sides and soon started “moonlighting” in an emergency room where I started to observe not only the physical trauma of my patients, but their mental anguish. I started to write about their experiences and that started my career in integrative medicine and also as a writer.
Bottom line - follow your bliss.
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