When I was 5 years old in Bucharest, my uncle, a physician and researcher, took me to his lab. What I saw there ignited in me the burning desire to become a doctor, a desire that has never been extinguished.
Oddly enough, the stuff that started me on the road to becoming a doctor was a sink full of bullfrogs. My uncle’s lab did animal research.
The bullfrogs were ugly – big, green, bulbous and full of what seemed like acne. They crawled all over one another in too small a space.
I had never seen a bullfrog in real life, and I immediately felt compelled to save them. So I pushed the mesh covering them a bit, hoping they would all exit quickly.
No such thing happened. A lab technician covered them and I went on to the next life-altering moment of that particular day, which involved swabbing my cheek and looking at its contents under a microscope. What I saw then has lingered in my mind ever since.
I saw an entire world of moving things. Who would ever think there was live stuff in one’s mouth? It was amazing. Different shapes and sizes, brightly lit by the microscope light and magnification, these strange and miraculous beings stunned and engulfed me.
I was nothing short of mesmerized. But as not too many people become doctors at age 5, I went to elementary school just like everybody else. I was a pretty good student in general, because I was and still am curious about many things, especially the objective sciences. I loved math and physics and marveled when I figured out how to solve chemistry equations.
At the age of 15, I moved with my parents to Rome on our way to the United States. I was fortunate to attend an American high school and learn English and continue my education in a free environment that was very different from the Communist regime I had known.
Every weekend my parents took me to the museums and I saw the most amazing and wonderful art the West has to offer. To this day, I wonder how I stayed the course and became a doctor when I was surrounded by such magnificence and inspiration in the fine arts, literature and, of course, fashion.
I’ll tell you how. I learned to integrate things early on. After visiting shops and museums, I went to local hospitals and volunteered to help old people, people in pain, anyone I could find who was accepting of my inexperienced, poorly communicating but caring young self.
Soon after my graduation from high school, my parents and I moved to New York where my doctor-uncle, a partner in a private hospital on the Upper East Side, helped me get my first summer job in the hospital’s research facility.
Since I was never a fan of animal research – the bullfrog thing – I pretty much sabotaged the work by allowing male and female guinea pigs and mice to cohabitate and multiply. The results were a nightmare for the researchers, but they made me exceedingly happy. We had dozens of baby guinea pigs and mice scurrying around the cages and wreaking havoc in the lab.
This naturally led to my immediate transfer to the outpatient clinic, where I was taught to give injections and dispatched to work on another project, an anti-aging vitamin infusion that was totally avant-garde in those days.
The leader of the entire anti-aging section at the hospital was an elderly gentleman named Dr. Emanuel Revici. He was a genius and one of the unsung heroes of anti-aging medicine. He was short and stocky and quite ebullient even though to me he looked older than the hills. (I was 18. He must have been 60.) He spoke with a thick accent and kept on telling patients they should take medications “by mouse.” This caused fits of laughter wherever he went. Yet somewhere deep inside of me, the idea of practicing anti-aging medicine had taken hold.
That was still in the future. I went to New York University on an academic scholarship and luckily sailed through the entire premed curriculum. At that time, it was particularly difficult to get into medical school – especially if you were a woman – because the Vietnam War pushed more men than usual to go to medical school to avoid the draft. Between anti-war demonstrations and student sit-ins, life in college was full of distractions. But I kept my eye on the prize.
The only time I ever encountered a problem was with animal research, again.
True to form, I almost started a riot in genetics class where we followed the development of eggs into hatched chicks. As the semester progressed, I started a class rebellion by refusing to continue opening the eggs before they were hatched. As a result the professor, who did not want a total insurgence, acquiesced and our entire class took home two baby chicks once they hatched. Needless to say, my parents, who were the recipients of the chicks, were not enthused.
Finally, having understood animal research was not for me and medicine for humans was, I applied to medical schools and was lucky to get accepted. But not without a few male interviewers who asked me things like “Why would a woman want to be a doctor?” or “You should have children instead of trying to take a medical school spot from a man who will make a much better doctor than you.”
Thanks to my parents, who taught me that I can do anything I set my mind to, and my never-wavering desire to be a doctor, here I am today – 35 years out of medical school, with a wonderful clinical career, loving every minute of it.
Email Dr. Erika at Erika@drerika.com.