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Colombia, Day 11

The presentation for tomorrow is ready to go. I’ve done all the checking and rechecking possible, and I’ve run it through my head a few times. I’ll give it another go round in the morning. As I said in the latest Talking Tuesday, I had to work hard on getting the Spanish right… And it’s probably still not 100% right. We’ll see how it goes.

I had a conversation with a young man at the university the other day. We got to chatting about school and soccer and other things. I asked him what he was studying, and he said he was studying medicine. He said it was his best shot at getting out of here. When I asked him what he meant, he said he wanted to go to the United States and practice medicine there. “You’re in for it,” I told him. “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

You may or may not know that my wife is a physician assistant. When I first met her, she told me all about being a PA. (She had just graduated from PA school, with a master’s in physician assistant studies.) I remembered then about a guy in college who told me he was going to try and get into PA school. He said it was harder to go to PA school than medical school because there weren’t as many PA schools. When I asked him why PA school instead of medical school, he cited costs. He said it would be many, many years of schooling at very high tuition prices, followed by a few more years of getting paid peanuts while doing a residency. Then, depending on what specialty he took if, if at all, he would have to pay malpractice insurance.

Even in the mid-1990s, we all knew that malpractice insurance was only going to go up and up and up.

My wife cited the same concerns when we talked about it almost ten years ago. So I told all this to the kid I was chatting with here. The expression on his face seemed to be one of shock. See, he had been sold to the idea that it would be a breeze to take the US-required exams to get into a residency once he was done with medical school here. He also seemed to be putting off his practice of English. In essence, he seemed ill-prepared to chase his dream.

I told him not to give up, but to be realistic about his aspirations. I didn’t have my business card with me, and I wish I did. We parted ways with a hearty handshake.

There was a time when I thought I would be going to medical school. I even took the MCAT exam and did pretty well on it. However, as I kept working in the lab and interacting with physicians, staff and patients, I became more and more disillusioned with the practice of medicine. Don’t get me wrong, I think that physicians who devote themselves to healing are admirable people. We need tons more of them, and I hope the process gets easier. But it’s not for me.

In essence, I don’t take bullshit well. So when I hear the horror stories from friends and colleagues in medicine, my wife included, I know that I would lose my license faster than you can imagine. I just don’t tolerate people lying to me. I can read lying liars very well. People who hide behind a facade are an open book to me. So, as soon as someone came to see me while seeking drugs, I’d lose it and tell them to go take a hike.

Okay, so maybe I would not be so unprofessional. But I would get tired of it all and walk away. I just know I would.

Instead, I’m an epidemiologist, someone who studies that which happens to the people. By “the people,” I mean entire populations, not individuals at a time. (Though I still roll my eyes as “saving lives — millions at a time.”) If I really want to get away from humans, I can hide in a lab and do research. When I’m feeling adventurous, I come to Colombia. When I’m done with the doctoral degree — or even before that — I can get a job where people won’t look twice when I want to go somewhere dangerous, start asking questions.

Sound familiar? It should be.

Anyway, it’s a bit weird to be called “doctor” by some of the staff at the university here. Though I’ve corrected them and told them that I’ve just finished my second year of doctoral school, they still call me “doctor.” Or they call me “professor,” which I think is even better than doctor, more refined, more cultured. I see myself as a professor in the future, wearing an old suit jacket with elbow patches, chalk all over my lapel, my office a mess with books and articles and notebooks filled with stuff written by me. (Yes, I’ve said I’m not interested in academia as a career, but I could retire into it… Teach in some university in sub-Saharan Africa while saving the world from the next pandemic.)

On the way to the apartment today, the cab driver started telling me about his academic problems. He said he’s taking part-time classes to become a lab technician. He told me that he was having issues with getting credit for a class that he took off site. It wasn’t at the university where I’m a guest, so there was nothing I could do to help him. I told him to keep at it. I told him being a lab tech would be the most reward thing in many different ways. And don’t I know it.

The entire universe was not the same for me at two moments in my life. First, it was when I looked through a microscope when I was in second grade. Mom bought me a microscope at a garage sale. I put a leaf under it and saw plant cells for the first time. Then I put a pice of nail I had cut off my finger. Then I put a drop of water. I was more and more amazed each time at what I saw. It is the kind of excitement that I will never forget.

The second time came when I looked through a telescope. A cosmology club in El Paso had some telescopes out at a park. I got there just in time to have them show me Saturn. I had seen it in pictures, but then I was seeing it in real life. I was looking at an entire other planet thousands of miles away. The world had become incredibly complex when I looked through the microscope, and then it became incredibly small when I looked through the telescope.

Those are things I will never, ever forget, and I hope to pass them on not just to any children we may have in the future but to all young people I come in contact with. Your eyes are opened in many, many ways when you learn to see beyond what your eyes can see.


The world will never be the same once you see through the scope… Micro or Tele.

Featured image via Bryan Jones on Flickr, CC by -ND -NC 2.0.

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

3 replies

  1. When I was in junior high school, my school had donated electron microscopes we could use. Some were rather old transmission electron microscopes, one was a high end newer model.
    I joined the electron microscope club, just so I could use the old ‘scopes more.
    My the time I got to high school, the only teacher who knew how to work the electron microscopes at the high school had left and the equipment lay dormant.


    1. I didn’t get to play with an electron microscope until college. The physics department had one. We sliced up some hotdogs, fixed them in formalin, and then looked at them. You’d think I would have stopped eating hotdogs after that.


      1. Couldn’t do much playing on the electron microscope. Too much beam current would burn through the coating on the specimen grid. 😉
        As for formalin, I suffered from formaldehyde poisoning once, was working on a school project and was dissecting some specimens in the basement, with nearly no air exchange. Never made that mistake again!


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