The Road through Residency:

The Novice

Plato is credited with saying that before a man dies, he should plant a tree, write a book, build a house, and father a son. It is interesting that all but one of the items on his to-do-list for life have finite endings. Becoming a father is more akin to a lifelong tenure that doesn't pay as well as many think it should. I'm learning that being a new father isn't very different than being a young physician. There are many times when your patients can't tell you exactly what's wrong, just as a baby can't explain why he won't stop crying despite interventions such as a long feeding, a good burping, and an eventful diaper change. Patients sometimes become disgruntled at your lack of ability to fully give them relief or explain their symptoms, much like a baby wondering why you can't just walk around with him in your arms all night long. And, of course, you always have a little fear in the back of your mind while your patients are tucked in at night, a nagging worry that they might suddenly stop breathing or throw an embolism into their lungs from an occult clot in their leg. This is similar to pestering a pediatrician, despite sympathizing as a fellow medical professional, to evaluate the little cough your son has to the fullest extent. Being a new father is as daunting as being a new physician. The only difference is that as a physician, I'm only on call every fourth night.

It didn't take long for me to start worrying, even before we came home from the hospital…

I sit rocking in the oversized recliner in our post-partum room. My wife is asleep in the hospital bed, serene and exhausted. Twenty-four hours ago, we were pregnant. Now we've been parents for four hours and fifty-seven minutes. My little son lies asleep in the cradle in front of the bed. I hear him squirm, moan, and then fall asleep again. Despite the moon being at its zenith in the night sky, my eyes are wide, and my ears prick up at every groan, whimper, or cry. As someone who recently graduated from medical school, it's hard not to worry. All the horrible pediatric diseases I can remember flash through my mind every time he makes the slightest noise. Suddenly the prospect of being a father, a possibility I have excitedly awaited for thirty-eight weeks, is very frightening. I wish I didn't know everything that could go wrong. I wish I didn't have the mindset of trying to find things that are wrong. I wish I could just go to sleep and wake up when he's twenty-two and graduating from college. No matter how much I know about pediatrics, I am a mere novice when it comes to what lies before me.

"He's a little yellow," says the nurse during a visit later.

"I know. It's probably just physiologic. Nothing to be worried about." I'm saying this for my own sake. They take him out to the nursery, and I sit down, my knees rocking up and down. I look over at my wife, and she gives me that look.

"You need to settle down. He's fine."

On the ride home, I drive as if my insurance agent is in the front seat and a Department of Motor Vehicles representative and State Trooper are in the back.

A month later I'm rocking my son against my shoulder. His jaundice is all but gone. He squirms and cries. Slowly, with each little bounce, he calms down. He's almost twelve pounds now, and he's changing and growing every day. I'm starting to get the hang of this. I can tell when he's hungry and when he's just being fussy. I can tell when his diaper needs changing and when to grab a towel or duck as the cold air hits him. At work, something similar is happening. I can often tell when a patient is having more severe pain, or when a physical exam doesn't fit with the history, and I can see the potential complications of our interventions before they happen. So I guess being a father is a lot like being a new physician: there's a lot of on-the-job training.