A volunteer coordinator once told me that philanthropy is about “giving a voice to the voiceless.” I want, more than anything, to be worthy of that statement.
As a premedical student, I had — and still have — grand visions of uncovering the hopes and dreams of the disenfranchised and trumpeting them to the world. I have used my voice to give encouragement to struggling children, frightened women and the demented elderly. I have held hands and written to members of Congress. I have carried petitions literally stained with my own sweat. This work has been immeasurably rewarding, but over time, it has brought its own challenges. As I move toward becoming a physician, I am faced with the biggest challenge of all: learning to find my own independent voice — as an English major, as a Pilates enthusiast, as a lover of psychology — among the voices of the patients I serve.
This issue of voices — of what mine can do, and should do, for others — has been weighing heavily on my mind since I began training as a community ambassador at Planned Parenthood last April. As community ambassadors, we have no contact with patients or their families; mostly, we eat pizza and complain about the Kansas legislature. Yet even here, my role as a future physician is paramount. Among our small group, I alone will someday have the ability to provide direct care to women who are too poor to afford the medical care they deserve; women who feel ashamed and afraid of their bodies; women for whom “human dignity” is a pipe dream. It is assumed — because I never hesitate to donate my voice — that I am going to become an abortion provider and fill that ever-expanding gap in women’s health care. Some days I think this is the path I will take. Other days, I’m certain it’s not.
Each of my premed philanthropic experiences has ended this way. Whether we choose to complete our mandatory volunteer hours at Planned Parenthood, at a nursing home, or at a psychiatric hospital, we are confronted with an endless chasm of human need. It is the enormity of this space that allows premeds to change our minds so easily. At various times, I have been certain that I wanted to be a pediatrician, an obstetrician or a geriatrician. Today I am an aspiring psychiatrist, but who will I be tomorrow? As almost-medical-students, we are just beginning to form our careers; we are at the very bottom of the ladder. We don’t know ourselves yet. Our voices are strong but malleable, constantly in flux. We’re eager to be who people need us to be.
It’s easy to be eager-to-please and optimistic when, like me, you’re 23 years old and not even sure how to buy car insurance. I can content myself with being a voice for others when no one needs the voice I keep for myself. Getting married, starting a family, starting a practice, paying off my loans — these personal milestones feel as distant as the next ice age. For the next four years, my only job is to hone my ability to speak for others. But eventually, with kids and a mortgage and a quarter of a million dollars in debt, we will all have to confront the greatest question of all: in a career that is largely based on selflessness, is there room for the self?
When I was accepted last fall, choosing medicine felt like a relief. Unlike my friends who are struggling through dead-end jobs and unhappy relationships, I know — in the most general sense — what I’m doing with my life. But as the days tick closer and closer to first-year orientation, my relief is giving way to something that looks remarkably like terror. I feel like I’m being strapped into a roller coaster: the foam-covered bar is coming down, the car is getting ready to move, and there’s no getting off. Forever. Last year, last fall, today — I am content using my voice to help others. My voice speaks in unison with theirs. But tomorrow, next year, ten years from now — will that still be true? I’m afraid of flying down some future dip in the track, screaming at the top of my lungs that I want to get off the ride, and finding that no one can hear my voice anymore.
I have heard, over and over, that medical school will be the greatest challenge of my life. I will study more than I ever have; more than once, I will doubt myself. All I can do is remind myself, over and over, that I love using my voice to help others. That I’m a science nerd and a literature buff and an amateur Buddhist. That I’m a baseball fan and an animal lover and a Midwesterner through-and-through. That all of these things are what make my voice important, in whatever specialty I choose. All I can do is believe that, somewhere amid the din, I will find myself.