Life is filled with unpredictability. Events and circumstances move us in entirely different paths than we expect. The movie “Sliding Doors” provides a great allegory as how the simple act of getting on a subway train, or missing it because the door slid shut a second before the title character reaches it can entirely change people’s lives. Had it not been for a purely spontaneous revolution in Hungary in 1956, I would likely still be living there in far different circumstances. Had it not been for my aunt’s interference in our affairs, I would likely be living in Switzerland today instead of the United States. At each moment in life there are potential nodes, points of divergent paths where one split second, one chance encounter, one seemingly trivial decision can alter an entire life’s trajectory. Sometimes, we are able to look back and reflect on how we got to where we are today. At other times, we remain blissfully unaware of the bullet that missed us or the person we didn’t meet who would have led us astray. Are our lives filled with random chance or conscious design?
Life, like the weather, is hard to predict, and for similar reasons. Small changes today are likely to result in large variations in the future. This is the essence of chaos theory. We as humans don’t like chaos, and feel uncomfortable with the unknown, with randomness in our lives. Instead, we try to make sense of the world and of our lives by telling stories about ourselves, and how we expect our lives to unfold. Like many stories, the stories we are told, as well as the ones we tell ourselves at times turn out to be works of fiction.
We are all unreliable narrators, our perceptions filled with conscious and unconscious biases, filtered through ethnic and familial screens imprinted on each of us since birth, and colored by the vagaries of our experiences and how they influence our expectations. Had any of you been present, you may have had a very different take than mine on the events that transpired. Since you were not, you have to sit back and listen to the stories I’m about to tell, and attempt to view them from the perspective of your own lives.
Given how big an influence the choice of a career has on one’s life, it would seem reasonable that such choice comes as a result of much thought, research, and consultation with experts. In reality, this rarely seems to be the case. It certainly wasn’t for me.
When I started at the university, like many entering freshman, I wasn’t sure what kind of a career I wanted for myself. Initially succumbing to pressure from my father, I started off on an engineering track, but very quickly realized it held no interest for me. I changed to a science tract with concentrations in physics and chemistry. As I studied the required biology classes, I found myself drawn to the subject of oceanography. One of the first books I read in Hungary was the Jules Verne classic, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which left me with a lasting impression of life beneath the waves. Now the exploits of Jacques Cousteau were in the news, and one of my favorite TV shows was Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges. Based on these teenage enthusiasms, I decided to pursue a career in oceanography. Mind you, I was in the heart of the Midwest, a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, and had never visited an oceanographic institute. Nonetheless, I applied to and was accepted to three top graduate programs in the country: Columbia, Scripps in La Jolla, and the University of Miami. Unfortunately for me, all three are private schools with high tuitions. I was offered partial scholarship aid, but had to apply for private loans to make up the tuition and housing cost deficits. At each bank, the story was the same. After inquiring if I or my family had collateral to cover the loan, and finding I had none, I was turned down with the explanation that a degree in oceanography did not ensure a job in (what I just discovered) a highly competitive field. One loan officer, looking at my college transcript loaded with science and math courses, suggested that while they couldn’t loan me money to study oceanography, they would be happy to subsidize my studies if I chose to go to medical school. Since I wasn’t terribly interested in petroleum chemistry, which offered the most jobs in my area, or did I feel I had what it takes to be a superstar in physics, I decided belatedly to apply to medical school. I signed up to take the MCATs (Medical College Aptitude Test) at the last minute, and naively submitted applications to only three medical schools. Two were in Chicago, and I was familiar with both schools. For the third, I randomly opened the catalog listing all the programs in the country, and it opened to a school I knew almost nothing about besides its location in New Orleans. This was my third choice.
My parents were extremely excited and enthusiastic about the direction I was taking, as they both held strong reservations regarding my oceanography choice. Coming from the world in which they grew up, they felt that everything you owned could be taken from you overnight, except you knowledge. What they wanted for me was a profession that could promise work security along with a reasonable lifestyle. Given their life experiences, medicine fit the bill.
My classmates who were premed were shocked to find out that I was joining the applicant pool, and even more that I only applied to three schools. Not having considered this a career path, I was blissfully unaware how difficult it was to get into medical school, especially during the height of the Vietnam War, when demand for admission surged partly because it granted you an automatic deferral from the draft. Now I began to worry. What would I do if I wasn’t accepted? Thankfully, I was chosen by one of the Chicago schools relatively early, which removed my anxiety. I was waiting for the second school’s decision when I received a letter from Tulane University inviting me to New Orleans for an interview. (Schools typically didn’t offer interviews unless they considered you a strong candidate.) Under normal circumstances, having already been given a spot in Chicago, I would not have accepted the offer. However, Chicago was just recovering from a blizzard that dumped six feet of snow on the city, and I had never been to New Orleans. The prospect of warm sunshine sealed the deal for me. When I landed, having informed the school when and how I was arriving (as they requested), I was surprised to see someone at the airport holding up a sign with my name. The University had arranged for me to picked up and driven to the school. Once there, I had three separate interviews with faculty members, all of whom seemed very interested to find out who I was, not just why I wanted medicine as a career. This was very different from my Chicago interviews with a single faculty at each program, that seemed to consist of them telling me how difficult admission was and how honored I should feel if I was accepted. After my Tulane interviews, I was assigned to a senior medical student who showed me around both the School and adjacent Charity Hospital. He was very happy with his Tulane experience, and was a good salesman for the program. I was invited to join him along with another faculty for dinner followed by jazz music that night in the French Quarter. Next day, I was taken back to the airport for my flight home. The afternoon I arrived back, I received a telegram (email was yet to be invented) from the school telling me I had been accepted. They didn’t want me to worry, and an official acceptance letter was soon to follow. I was so impressed by the treatment I received that I decided to forego staying in Chicago, and accept Tulane’s offer. My dad was opposed to my decision not only because it meant my moving away from home for four years, but also because the financial package Tulane offered involved my taking out some loans. This was a low interest government backed loan, but I could have stayed in Chicago for free if I continued to live at home and commute. Seeing how excited I was by the prospect of Tulane, my mother backed my decision, which my father grudgingly accepted after finding out from colleagues at the University of Illinois, where he now was working, that Tulane had an excellent program.
There it is – a series of seemingly random events, which in a short time changed my life forever. I have to say, it turned out for the best.