“What’s a podiatrist?”
I sigh, collect my thoughts and reply, “Oh, a foot doctor.”
As soon as I say that, I see their facial expression change from confusion, to surprise. It happens all the time with friends, at social events and even my own parents.
As a second-year podiatric medical student, I have heard this question over and over again.
After countless first-time introductions, I have developed a routine elevator speech and get the same results: my interrogators have never heard of podiatry and none think it is a serious profession. It stings a little bit because, I am giving up four years for medical school and three years for residency while learning the complexity of the human body. I will need to pass all my board exams and practice detailed surgical procedures, yet I am still asked, “What’s a podiatrist?”
I don’t blame them for not knowing what a podiatrist is or that a foot doctor was a “real” specialty. Young people generally do not visit a podiatrist, unless the patient had a sports injury, has an ingrown toenail, or needs shoe orthotics.
What follows my elevator speech is people cracking a joke or two. At times they make fun of me in a good-sportsmanship kind of matter to try and lighten the mood. During this time, all I do is smile and chuckle to “fit in.” But behind my smile, there is in fact a little sadness and disappointment.
If others could see through my eyes and experience the long journey which includes long sleepless study nights, stressful exams and countless traumatic patients, they would not be underestimating the profession.
The second question that never fails to get asked is, “Why a foot doctor?”
What they really want to say is, “How can you look at other people’s nasty feet all day?”
My first experience in a podiatrist clinic began as I shadowed a doctor as a summer volunteer intern. As an undergrad student I had no knowledge of medicine, nor had I become accustomed to firsthand experience with extreme lower-extremity cases. My attention was struck with images of patients suffering from simple heel pain, to a broken toe or a post-op foot amputation. It was a culture shock to see individuals in boot casts, some struggling to walk and others who will never walk again. I always remember about how I thought of these patients’ pain. Their struggle. Their woe.
I admit, this profession has patients that demand an individual to develop a strong stomach, and dealing with feet is not at the top of everybody’s list as a career choice. But in reality, in which field of medicine do you really get to see beautiful, perfect, sweet-scented things? None. All aspects of medicine have their up and downs, and we each cope with it in our own way.
When asked, “Why a foot doctor?,” I reply with, “It is a very specialized field from the start, I get to know my patient’s at a personal level, and most importantly, I get to restore them back to their active lifestyle.”
Whenever I am giving my one-minute elevator speech, sometimes I wonder, what’s the point of sacrificing all this time and energy if the majority of the people are clueless of my profession?
However, there is reassurance for the love of what I do when I move above the lower extremities, when I look up to the patient’s face and see a human being still smiling back.
As I gaze into their eyes, there is still a veteran that wants to walk with his grandchildren. There is still a mother that needs to get up to cook for her children. There is still a father that wants to stand when he sees his son walk across in his graduation. There is still a disabled child that prays every single night, in the hopes of running as fast as his heart can take him, just like his friends.
Can you imagine?
Having strong healthy feet can be life changing for someone who has lost their ability to be mobile. We fail to be aware of the blessings we already have. We only truly appreciate it once it is too late. Although the majority of the people don’t know about my career, for those who do, these patients appreciate the level of work podiatrists do.
And that has made all the difference.