My dad is a doctor. His brother is a doctor. Their dad was a doctor. Naturally, my friends thought I was going to go right into medicine, but instead I went into teaching. It was a bit adolescent, “I don’t want to do what my dad does.” He had always told me that if I went into medicine, it should be because I wanted to do it, not just because he was a doctor. He said if you want to teach high school, go try teaching high school, see how you like it. Because it’s a lot easier to go from that to medicine rather than go through medical school, become a doctor, and realize, yeah, I’d rather be teaching high school.
I did Teach For America in a rural town in North Carolina. I was 22 and I taught chemistry and physics. Standing in front of a class of 30 high school seniors who were only four years younger than me and engaging them was tough. After two years, I thought maybe there are other people who could do that better and I could better help people as a doctor. It was a great experience, but teaching high school was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I decided going to medical school might be easier.
When I began med school at Columbia, where I met my wife, who became an oncologist, I thought I would be a primary care doctor in the mountains. I thought I’d leave New York after medical school and never come back. But in my third year, I realized I wasn’t cut out for primary care. When I finished my rotation in neurosurgery and my mom, a school librarian, asked how I liked it, I said it was all right. She said, “Oh. I thought that would be something that would really appeal to you.”
As it turns out, my mom really knows me. I was drawn to the kinds of patients, the acuity and seriousness of the problems that neurosurgeons treat, the small teams that work very closely together, and the technical side of neurosurgery. One of the things that kept me from thinking about it initially was I wasn’t sure if I could hack it. After talking to my mom, I thought, to heck with it. Let’s see if it’s possible.
I also think the combination of the intellectual and physical challenges of neurosurgery attracted me. I raced on the cross-country ski team in high school in Rochester, New York, where I grew up, and in college, and today I do ski marathons. I go to Wisconsin, where my parents are from, for the American Birkebeiner, the largest cross-country ski race in North America, a 55-kilometer marathon. I’m out there in the woods, sweating and breathing heavily. In the summer, I roller ski. It looks like skis on wheels and you use your regular ski boots and bindings. I go out to a loop of quiet neighborhood streets where I live and get a lot of funny looks. There’s an endurance element that’s common to both skiing and surgery, and my fitness for skiing helps me remain mentally fresh when I’m physically tired after a long surgery.