this (doctored) life
“What kind of doctor are you?” the receptionist asks, glancing sideways from her computer screen to corroborate my forthcoming answer. If I am a so-called real doctor, I am entitled to the Medicare-only fee, the specialist’s courtesy to a medical colleague. “I can be whatever kind of doctor you want,” I say. “Medicine or philosophy: you choose. If you have a heart attack, I can resuscitate you or philosophise over you.” She smiles neutrally.
Neither claim is technically true. When I graduated in medicine, we didn’t receive a doctor of medicine but completed a bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery. And my doctor of philosophy from the Brussels Free University is a “doctor in de medische wetenschappen” — in the medical sciences — though I am assured that PhD is the appropriate abbreviation.
It’s not the first time I have been asked. My son asked me the same question unexpectedly one evening. After a lengthy explanation of what a public health physician working in international health does, I asked him what prompted him to ask. “It’s the teachers. They always ask, ‘What does your father do?’ and when I say, ‘He’s a doctor’, they always ask, ‘ What kind?’ ” Interesting. So what have you been telling them? “I just say you’re a surgeon,” he said, laughing. “That keeps them happy.”
Increasingly, though, I am less certain of what kind of doctor I am. My early clinical career focused on obstetrics and pediatrics. Both were rich and usually positive engagements. But three years practising in Nigeria were brutal: heavy clinical loads in a hospital where the deaths of mothers and children haunted my days.
I shifted towards primary care in a rural health program, training community health workers in the hope of preventing some of that burden of illness. After I returned to Australia to a mix of international and Aboriginal health work, my medical practice became the diminishing complement to my work in health systems research and policy. My clinical work with Aboriginal people in Kakadu and later across central Queensland reinforced my conviction that sustainable health outcomes depended on social and economic change.
As I engaged further in academe, the little after-hours medicine that I maintained to keep open the option of returning to clinical practice was strangely dissatisfying.
So I let it go. Now I teach, research and mentor. What matters to me now is less what I can do but what my students are taking back into the world. After all, the word doctor really means teacher — from the Latin docere — which Cicero defined as “providing truth through evidence and argument”.
Maybe I am that kind of doctor.
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