When I was a young assistant professor (yes, that was a long, long time ago!), I usually operated on Fridays and came in on Saturdays to see my postoperative patients and any patients with corneal ulcers or other problems needing close follow-up.
Often my 3 young children would play or crawl around on the floor of my office while I did my work.
Previously by Dr. McDonnell: Big Brother is watching: Technology is looking out for me
One day I was seeing one of my postoperative patients who was a very successful businessperson about the age I am now. He was the archetype of the high-powered CEO and a friend of the president of my university.
Happily, he had a perfect result, and after reviewing with him the postoperative medication regimen, I asked him if he had any questions.
“Yes,” he said, “do you always work on Saturdays?” I told him that I did.
“So, do you work 6 days a week?” he asked, and I confirmed this was the case—unless something urgent, like a perforated corneal ulcer, came in over the weekend requiring me to come in to glue a perforation or do surgery on Sunday.
“Would you mind if an old man offered you some advice?” he asked me. I encouraged him to share his thoughts.
“You have these 3 beautiful children,” he said. “They are young now, but they will grow up seemingly overnight and be gone. When I was young like you, I worked 6 or 7 days per week building my business and worried about making enough money to provide security for my family. As a result, I did not spend the time with my children that I now wish I had. Now they are grown, busy with their work and families, and do not have much time for me. Meanwhile, I am left with more money than I need. Maybe you could dial back on your career a bit.”
I thanked him for his advice, knowing it was motivated by the best of intentions. I remember thinking that I had heard this plenty of times from older men.
Little did these older folks appreciate the cost of living in Southern California or the rapidly increasing college tuition bills for the children of young parents like me.
Not to mention the fact that in academics, you either publish or perish and traveling to the major meetings is pretty much mandatory if you want to be taken seriously on the national or international stage.
“These older fellows do not understand the pressures on today’s young professionals who are parents,” I thought.
It has been 30 years, and I remember this conversation as if it were yesterday.
Yes, Southern California real estate was (and remains) very expensive, but every physician can afford a decent home. And yes, college and professional school tuitions are ridiculously expensive and continue to rise quickly.
But I and all my doctor friends have handled those bills as well, and today we all seem to have more funds than we really need.
And now my children—like those of my patient—are grown, busy, and living in other cities.
Because humans like me really do “live forward but [only come to] understand backwards,” today I believe my youth and inexperience prevented me from fully appreciating the wisdom in the words of the fathers who were a generation or two ahead of me.