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 my quarter of the state. For every heart attack or gunshot wound, you treat dozens of skin rashes, pulled muscles, children with sniffles, and even a lot of toothaches (dentists refer after-hours patients to the ER). 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 started thinking about this 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 and writing orders before and after surgery, scrubbing in and gowning up for surgery, dealing with support staff and services, answering phone calls from colleagues, nurses, and patients, and then overseeing billing and office activities. Surgery is actually a minor part of a surgeon’s time; and too often, the surgery starts at 2:00AM and lasts for hours, when the surgeon was already bone tired after a 16-hour workday.
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 articles and manuals, trying to figure out what works with the search engines, 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. Once again, scut work.
And I haven’t even begun to think about how I might generate money off of all this so that someday I might 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 this as I watch my family. For my wife and me, our children are the center of our lives. We take them out to nice restaurants with us, we take them on vacations, we take them to plays and other performances; we very 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 about it. And when my wife and I are tired, we come to resent all the repetitive, mindless jobs. It’s even harder on my wife, who does most of the scut work in the home, and who gave up a university appointment 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 wardrobe & makeup for long periods, sometimes for hours.
Even the filming can be drudgery, where the actor is stuck in a small trailer for days on some remote 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 glamorous 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 dine like piranhas.
Even the down time, the personal life of the movie star, when she gets to relax in all of the luxury that comes with the fame and glamour, contains a lot of scut work: sure, someone else cleans, cooks, and maintains everything, but those have to be managed, directed, corrected, and at times, investigated for theft. Or worse: just as with all of the adoring friends and fans, the household staff can represent a mine-field: one intimate revelation, and the tabloids scream out the actor’s most embarrassing and hurtful secrets. Every social miscue or failed relationship is a profit bonanza for the scandal sheets, and they blast out the details in every grocery store 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.
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Picture of M-O (Microbe-Obliterator) from the animated film Wall·e, © 2008 Pixar and Disney. All rights reserved.