• Rosalind Kaplan, MD

Jack of all Trades

Yesterday, I spent a 12-hour shift at urgent care, during which I sutured a slew of lacerations (it was Sunday, and it seemed like a lot people were either in their kitchens using knives, or outside doing projects involving other sharp instruments), ordered X-rays of sprained and fractured ankles, sent a serious trauma patient to the hospital, and sorted out various medical symptoms-- chest pain, palpitations, belly pain and respiratory infections. This morning I worked on some medical curriculum for a summer conference, and this afternoon, after taking a walk, I did some reading for a writing workshop and then started working on a personal essay. In the middle of my writing, one of the nurses from the primary care clinic where I volunteer called to give me an update on a patient and see what the next step should be in her care. When I hung up the phone, I realized that I hadn't written a blog post last week, so here I am. I guess I'll get back to that essay the day after tomorrow, since I have another 12-hour medical shift tomorrow.

Sometimes I feel like there are too many disparate parts of myself. My to-do list is a mishmash of doctor tasks and writer tasks and parent tasks and household tasks, none of which seem to overlap. Consequently it sometimes seems like medicine is a distraction to writing, and housework a distraction to medicine and so on...I am constantly shifting my attention from one role to another, changing hats all day long. How can I ever get anything done? Isn't it better to be focused, to be really an expert in one area than to split myself between several disciplines and toggle back and forth between them?

I think that there are pros and cons to either way of being, but that for me, it's not just more fun, but actually more productive, to move between disciplines. It's sort of like the question in medicine of being a generalist or being a specialist. A specialist can know every find point of an area of study; there are even super-sub-specialists who know just one aspect of one area of study, for instance a gastroenterologist who decides to concentrate on just the liver and then becomes an expert on just autoimmune hepatitis, or a neurologist who decides that movement disorders will be the focus, and eventually comes to only study and treat Parkinson's Disease. If I had Parkinson's, I might want to be that neurologist's patient, but if I were looking for someone to manage headaches AND Parkinson's disease, a general neurologist would be much better.

As a physician who teaches medicine and also writes, and a writer who teaches writing and also writes medical curriculum, I am positioned to help patients, not just medically, but also through communication and a the broad view of humanities and the world that reading and writing engender. I am also positioned to teach writers and readers about the world of medicine and to teach doctors about communication and writing-- all really valuable skills. More than that, I enjoy using both sides of my brain, and I enjoy moving easily between the worlds of science and literature. It seems like the many medical schools that are now incorporating humanities into their curricula have caught onto the fact that there is an advantage to straddling the realms of medicine and the arts. Physicians benefit from being as fully human as possible, and we need to foster the ideal of remaining fully human.

The opportunity to narrow one's focus is always there, but narrowing it too much too soon may lead to unwanted side effects, including boredom, burnout and forgetting that we all started out as human beings, generalists in the purest sense of the word. Maybe if I were more focused, I could be the 'best' at something, or the 'only' person with special knowledge and skills. But right now, it gives me more pleasure to be a jack of all trades and a master of none: just a human being being part of the world.

“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

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