At age 90, Dr. Walter Lawrence Jr. of Richmond — who entered med school during World War II — is still seeing patients. Through our friends at the Richmond Academy of Medicine, we asked him to write a letter to aspiring doctors today.
Dear Potential Medical School Applicant:
I hear that you’re considering a career in medicine. But you wonder if all those years of educational time and effort are really worth it — especially when health care and health care programs often sound like little more than political or business debates that accomplish little and heal no one.
Plus, you’re probably wondering whether the personal rewards of medical practice actually justify what is an often exhausting, and possibly overly demanding, lifestyle.
Though these may be legitimate concerns, I’m happy to share with you why I still love medicine 68 years after receiving my own M.D.
First, you should understand that the practice of medicine is a moving target, in that both diagnostic and treatment approaches are constantly evolving and improving. I should know: I’ve been trying to keep up with medicine’s exponential advances since I entered medical school back in 1944, when America was at the height of World War II.
You might not realize that before then, there were actually very few effective medical approaches to any of our major health problems. How primitive was it? Well, consider that there were no available antibiotics for life-threatening infections before penicillin, which came on the scene around that time; no medicines for the control of high blood pressure, other than sedatives; and very limited medical approaches to failing hearts, kidneys and livers. Operations were both hazardous and limited in scope, and physicians’ care was often limited to providing empathy — as was so well-documented in the old Norman Rockwell paintings showing the kindly doctor at the sick patient’s bedside.
Fast-forward over the past seven decades, and you can see how many medical marvels in both diagnosis and treatment we’ve seen — from open-heart surgery to organ transplantation to CT scans. This age of medical marvels has fundamentally transformed the actual practice of medicine and, as a result, the role of the doctor.
From my long view of the matter, it appears that the physician has often become more of a technical “specialist” and less of the kind of compassionate, caring and supportive doctor that inspired Rockwell and, later, the creators of TV’s best-known doctor, Marcus Welby, M.D.
Despite these many changes, the major satisfaction I derive from my own medical career remains unchanged from what it was at the outset.
What is it about treating other human beings that’s so fulfilling? It starts with that aspect of medicine that seems as powerful now as when I was a medical student: the patient.
Many call this the doctor-patient relationship, but I like to think of it as the human connection. Even at my age, I always look forward to my weekly clinic sessions with patients, even as I wisely stepped back from the operating room some time ago. I sincerely hope each day that I am providing some service to my fellow man, but I know for certain these clinical interactions benefit my own soul beyond measure.
This is the touchstone for me, just as I hope it will be for you if you choose medicine as your career. Never forget that it is truly a privilege to enjoy the complete trust of another human being, a person who depends on both your problem-solving ability and your concern for their welfare.
What has often worried me about my own patient care is the fact that I may not be able to fulfill the expectations of these individuals — our patients — who rely on us to protect them and to guide them through their illnesses. The trust of our patients often seems greater than can be justified by our abilities and our performance at times, but this is both a challenge and a tremendous satisfaction nevertheless. Nothing is more fulfilling than the gratitude of another human being for your professional help, and I can assure you that if you do choose medicine, this satisfaction you will feel for medical practice will never disappoint.
Another aspect of medical practice that has never changed for me — even as the 20th century rolled into the 21st — is the wide variety of experiences a physician enjoys on a continuing basis. Every day is filled with new ideas (and problems), and every day is filled as well with wonderful interactions with patients, colleagues and, for some of us, medical students. For me, this variety makes every new day exciting.
I also am continually energized by potential medical school applicants such as yourself — I have enjoyed serving for many years on the VCU School of Medicine Admissions Committee. Because make no mistake: Even though medicine has greatly progressed in the technical sense over the years, we still need compassionate physicians, with a talent for science, who will both love and seek the opportunity to serve others in need.
Dr. Walter Lawrence Jr., a member of the Richmond Academy of Medicine for 50 years, is professor of surgery emeritus and director emeritus of the Massey Cancer Center at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. He also treats fellow veterans at the McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center.