People think the life of an ER doctor, or any doctor, is exciting. Truth is, most of it is scut work. But then, most of life is scut work: there are no exciting jobs.
Only people excited about their jobs.
Life in the ER
People think that being an ER doctor must be exciting; the TV shows certainly portray it in that way. For several years I worked the busiest ER in this quarter of the state. For every heart attack or gunshot wound you see dozens of skin rashes, pulled muscles, children with sniffles, and even toothaches. And even then, much of the work was clerical: writing orders, writing notes, and a fair amount of negotiating, wheedling, and even bullying with outside agencies and internal bureaucrats.
I now work a much quieter ER, but most electronic medical records are a trainwreck, and ours has to be one of the worst. For every 5 minutes I spend with a patient, I spend 10 to 15 struggling with the computer. I spend much of my working time as a clerical worker; or as I have also come to think of it, a janitor.
I first became aware of the problem on my surgery rotations in medical school. People think the surgeon spends her day with scalpel in hand, removing, replacing, and repairing tissues and organs. The surgeon wishes. Most of the week is endless paperwork, seeing patients before and after surgery, scrubbing in and gowning up for surgery, dealing with support staff and services, overseeing billing and office activities. Surgery is actually a minor part of a surgeon’s time; and too often, the surgery takes place at 2:00AM, when the surgeon is bone tired after a 16-hour day of work.
In medical school the extraneous stuff is called ‘scut work.’ A lot of the menial tasks are relegated to the medical students: paperwork, charting, retrieving lab and x-ray reports, wheeling patients around. At Big Charity in New Orleans it was worse; or, depending on your view point, better. From under-funding, gross mismanagement, civil service stonewalling, and simple sloth, students did a lot more at Charity than in other hospitals. It was a surprise for us to discover that at many other medical schools, students didn’t start IVs, draw venous bloods for chemistry, draw arterial bloods for lung function tests, and they certainly didn’t deliver babies. If the students in New Orleans didn’t do these things, most of them simply didn’t get done. So sometimes scut work is also good learning.
But it’s still scut work.
Writing as Scut Work
The same is true of writing, both for this blog and for the book I’m working on. The joy is the original inspiration for an idea, and writing it up – or at least writing it when the writing is flowing. When I’m facing a deadline and can’t decide what the central idea is, or I can’t organize the argument, or the words are clumsy, it’s just aggravating.
And if I don’t get out and constantly market and promote what I’m doing, by reading and trying to figure out what works with the search engines, by interacting on a variety of social networks, and responding to subscribers and visitors, no one even shows up to read the writing that I put hours into. Once I figure out what works, then I have to find time to do that constantly and methodically, every day if possible.
And I haven’t even begun to think about how I might generate money so that someday I could write full-time. Or more accurately, so that I could be a writer. Because, of course, writing is the minor part of what the writer does.
The Family Janitors
I think about that as I watch my family. For my wife and me, our children are the center of our lives. We take them out to dinner with us, we take them on vacations, we rarely do anything without them. And like most parents, we spend a huge part of our lives cooking and cleaning and washing and driving and disciplining and answering and arguing and cajoling and counseling and consoling.
Of course, the kids have their chores, their own scut work, and they often complain. And when my wife and I are tired, we come to resent all the repetitive, mindless scut work. It’s even harder on my wife, who does most of the scut work in the home, and who gave up University teaching to be a homemaker and home schooler.
The fact is, most of life is scut work.
Movie Star Glamour
We think the life of a movie star is glamorous. Hardly. There are gym workouts, constant dieting, regular skin and hair and face maintenance, surgeries, acting and diction lessons, reading through scripts, negotiating with agents and directors and producers, memorizing lines, being fitted for costumes, sitting in makeup and wardrobe for long periods, sometimes for hours.
The filming itself can be drudgery, where the actor is stuck in a small trailer for days while on location, practicing scenes and action sequences until they’re perfect, then shooting and re-shooting the same scenes until they’re perfect again. As for the most glamourous parts, the interviews and media appearances, they are also hard work: one misstatement, one poor fashion choice, one makeup or wardrobe malfunction, and the media pounce like piranhas.
Even the down time, the personal life of the movie star when you get to relax surrounded by all of the luxury that comes with the fame and glamour, is a mine-field: one poor choice in friends and the tabloids scream out your most intimate embarrassments. Every social miscue or relationship failure are blasted in every grocery store aisle in the country, and perhaps all over the world.
No Exciting Jobs
The point is, there are no exciting jobs. The best we find are people who are grateful and excited about their jobs. Face it, most of life is scut work.
The real challenge is learning to enjoy it, learning gratitude.
Picture of M-O (Microbe-Obliterator) from the animated film Wall·e, © 2008 Pixar and Disney. All rights reserved.