I was sitting in the lecture hall of my medical school as a first-year student when the attending physician, a gray-haired internal medicine doctor, asked a question which set off, for me, a maelstrom of emotions. He had just referenced a story in that day’s Chicago Tribune which was relevant to his lecture on physiology.
“Just curious,” he said. “How many of you even get the newspaper delivered?” Out of dozens of University of Illinois College of Medicine students in class that day — bright, eager, well-educated young people — my hand was the only one that went up.
I doubt anyone else gave it a second thought. It was a passing inquiry meant merely to highlight the changing times: pretty much every young person gets their news online these days, if they get the news at all.
But for me — a former reporter for the Tribune and The Associated Press – the moment encapsulated one of the big reasons I was even sitting there. The rise of the Internet. The shifting demographics. The plunging circulations. The contraction of newsrooms.
More than four years have passed since then. Last spring, I finished up my medical degree at the age of 39, the oldest person in my graduating class. I’m now a pathology resident at Loyola University Medical Center just outside Chicago.
It’s an unusual transition from a reporter’s notebook to a long white coat and it hasn’t been easy. I’m glad to report, however, that so far, it’s worked. In many ways, I feel fortunate. I’m in a great residency program at a terrific hospital.
Most people, I suppose, have an alternative life that exists in the back of their minds, another career they always thought about, another path they might’ve taken. The troubles in the newspaper industry gave me an opportunity to actually go down that road.
I doubt I would’ve even contemplated such a dramatic career move if I had not been from a medical family, with my father a physician, my mother a nurse and an older brother a doctor, too. Medicine was dinner-table conversation for us, so naturally it had been a career consideration since I was young. My upbringing also gave me a good sense of what it would take to make it happen, even if I was getting a late start.
But I also loved writing from an early age and wanted to be a witness to history. By the mid-2000s, I was a Metro reporter at the Tribune as the ramifications of the changing newspaper industry were starting to hit home. There was, it seemed, an almost daily drumbeat of newspaper layoffs and apocalyptic projections about whether newspapers would even survive.
In 2007, real estate tycoon Sam Zell made a deal with Tribune Company that left it strapped with $13 billion in debt. I had read enough about the so-called “Grave Dancer” to get the feeling he wasn’t going into this because of his love of journalism.
At the time, I was covering local politics and government for the Tribune, but I’d always liked science and when I had time to pursue enterprise reporting, I often found stories about science, health and nature. So in the months just after the Zell announcement, I cooked up a plan: I would take a year of post-baccalaureate science courses at a nearby college.
The courses I took — biology, chemistry, organic chemistry and physics — were the basic requirements for applying to medical school crammed into one year. After more than a decade out of school, I had no idea how I would fare. Not to mention, I had been an English major the first go-around. But I buckled down and hit the books like it was my job.
Going forward with the med school applications was a tough decision — not because medicine isn’t a great career, but because the path to becoming a doctor is so long, so arduous and, yes, so expensive. I was at an age when I figured it still could be worth it, but it was now or never.
In med school, the volume of information you must stuff into your brain, though legendary, was more than I could’ve fathomed. They compare it to drinking from a fire hose and the tests are relentless, so you have to study constantly or you’ll get swept away. In residency, the studying is still there and the hours are even longer and more unpredictable.
Needless to say, if you have kids (I have three), it’s crucial to have a supportive spouse taking on the lion’s share of the family duties. I don’t have words for how important and wonderful my wife has been through this process. But she’s also a former business reporter who knows the job market for doctors looks better than it does for journalists.
In medicine, the day-to-day work is very different from what I used to do, but there are aspects of it that appeal to me for the same reasons as journalism.
As a reporter, I loved that my assignments took me to fascinating places where something special was happening. I have gotten that feeling in my medical training too — when I was helping deliver babies on my ob-gyn rotation or assisting surgeons removing a cancer-ridden colon or accompanying a family medicine doctor doing checkups on ex-cons at a halfway house on Chicago’s South Side or performing autopsies as a pathology resident.
These are inherently interesting moments — and I find myself thinking, like a journalist, how I would describe them later. I still have some ink in my blood.
Journalism also helped me break the ice with patients and put them at ease. As a reporter, you learn to talk to anyone, and I had interviewed everyone from presidential candidates to refugees of war. That helps when you walk into an examining room to see a patient, even if you’re no longer seeking the perfect quote.
What journalists do in putting together a complicated story requires taking disparate sources of information — from interviews, quotes, documents and archives — and compiling them in a clear and logical manner, starting with the most important information. And they do it on tight deadlines.
Doctors do that too — drawing from patient interviews, physical exams, lab tests, radiology and pathology — to present a patient to the medical team on daily rounds.
Doctors also do some writing. Some write academic reports, but they all write in medical charts. The “history of present illness” is usually a concise summarizing paragraph or two including the patient’s description of the symptoms that caused him to seek medical care, which you draw out of him with careful questioning.
Clarity and accuracy are paramount in an HPI. You begin with a “power statement” that is sort of like a lede: “67-year-old male with a past medical history of hypertension and diabetes reports to the ER with crushing substernal chest pain for one hour that radiates to his left arm and jaw.” It’s kind of like an AP brief (in this case, describing a likely heart attack).
‘We tell their stories’
Doctors and journalists share some attributes, but they are, I’ve discovered, very different personality types.
They’re both smart and curious people in fields where you learn something new every day. But while doctors are driven to learn as much as possible to gain expertise in one specific field, journalists embrace the idea that what comes their way may be anything under the sun, so they end up knowing a little bit about a lot of things.
As Bill Moyers once said, “We journalists are simply beachcombers on the shores of other people’s knowledge, other people’s experience, and other people’s wisdom. We tell their stories.”
Storytellers tend to make better conversationalists. And they make for a lot of fun when you pile into the local tavern after your stories have been filed.
There’s not much piling into the local tavern in medicine. Doctors are more inclined to wake up early than to stay out late.
I do miss the boisterous joy of the newsroom and the hyperkinetic buzz when a big story breaks. I miss writing stories. I miss knowing the news before anyone else does.
But there can be a buzz in patient care, too, when minutes matter and lives potentially are at stake.
Pathology, specifically, is the study of disease, and there is something very gratifying about now understanding diseases that I long had heard about, whether it’s cystic fibrosis, tuberculosis, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell disease or cancer. And it’s exciting that I may be able to use explanatory skills sharpened through journalism to share that understanding.
It’s been almost seven years since I left the Tribune, and I still have more than three years remaining in residency. Then, there likely will be another couple years of fellowships, too.
No question, it’s a long, long road, but at least I’ve made it through some of the rockier parts. Where does it lead from here? That’s a story I’m still writing.
John Biemer, MD, is a first-year resident in pathology at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, IL. He is a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press and a former associate writer for CNN Headline News.