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For the past seven years I have spent my summers at a camp in California, first as a camper, then as a counselor and, finally, a division head. The camp is quite remarkable in that each summer it takes in, along with its other campers, approximately 20 children with various learning disabilities, emotional disorders, and mental retardation. For two unforgettable summers I worked in the division that included these handicapped children. This proved to be one of the most extraordinary experiences in my life, as it provided me with a chance to interact closely, on a day-to-day basis, with youngsters whose courage and capacity for joy impressed me immensely. Their smiles and laughter were pure, even as they battled very significant personal difficulties for which they were not responsible. Ironically, as I worked with these children I was simultaneously fighting a small battle of my own, resisting my initial resistance to and fear of dealing with these children.
Before I got to know these youngsters, I was worried that they would detect my discomfort, catch me staring at them, misinterpret something I might say, or be hurt somehow by my actions or words. I felt that something socially unacceptable might occur. As I tend to be someone who prefers to eschew confrontation, this at first seemed a threatening possibility. The reality was that once I immersed myself in working with them, my fear of any incidents disappeared. I began relating to these children just as I would normal kids, and they sensed this and responded well. Working with these youngsters, who suffered from Down’s syndrome and other serious problems, gave me a greater appreciation for my own health and a new way of relating to others who are ill.
Last summer I was back in camp as a division head. I was responsible for 79 people, including campers and staff, and had ample opportunity to test my skills as a leader, diplomat, and one who gets along well with many different types of individuals.
Deliberately putting myself in a situation that at first makes me uncomfortable is something I have done repeatedly in my life. Being scared makes me conscientious and prompts me to do a good job. In fact, I have discovered that the things I fear the most, the enterprises about which I have the most apprehension, inevitably turn out to be activities in which I excel. Medicine in general certainly represents this kind of challenge, and I would be less than candid if I did not concede that there have been moments in my premed years that I have found intimidating. However, I have also found great exhilaration in the learning process and in finding out that I was equal to any challenges that arose.
My interest in becoming a physician extends back to my childhood, although I also considered such possibilities as becoming a businessman, architect, or pilot. My father is a physician, though, so my exposure to the field of medicine was the most regular and intense, and ultimately the most inspiring. Observing my father at work and seeing his satisfaction with what he was accomplishing made a lasting impression on me. How great to do something with such benefits for others and such intrinsic reward for oneself!
For the past year I have had a chance to be a peer health counselor at my university. Working in my dorm, I provide counsel to students with a wide range of emotional and physical problems. This has given me the opportunity to be a leader and educator among my fellow students while also acquiring a little additional insight into the kinds of problems that a health professional confronts.
I have also worked for two years as a volunteer in my university hospital’s emergency room, where I have been able to observe a great diversity of surgeries and the difficult conditions under which physicians often must function. I have come away from this experience with a better understanding of the sacred nature of the medical profession and the importance of the doctor’s work. I have seen the need for both kindness and strength in doctors, and I have been impressed by the variety of skills that a successful physician must bring to play in his or her professional role.