7 'National Doctors' Day' Reflections on the Life of a Physician

As we celebrate National Doctors' Day, columnist Greg Kelly reflects on his own connection to physicians and how the all-consuming job shapes those who take on the call.

“People work for money but go the extra mile for recognition.”

—Dale Carnegie

March 30 is National Doctors’ Day. First celebrated in 1933, the date on which the occasion falls is just further proof of my lifelong connection with physicians—it’s also the birthday of my first child, my son Kyle (he turns 22).

This recognition for doctors is well deserved. The contributions of the medical profession cannot be underestimated. Few professions can match them when it comes to hard work, compassion, skill, sacrifice, and accomplishment.

While observing my physician-dad’s long career, the one thing that sticks out most was his dedication to his patients and their regard for him. With things seeming so desperate now for doctors, this is what gives me some hope that the medical profession may yet endure. Today’s doctors still cite time with patients as the most meaningful part of their work.

Here are a few other random thoughts on this most deserving holiday:

Highly Intelligent — In following my dad’s career, meeting his colleagues, and working with and interviewing other doctors, I always got the impression that they were very smart. According to IQ test history, medical professionals are perennial champs when it comes to brains. I’m sure there are exceptions, and of course, being a good doctor also requires hard work, sacrifice, and patience.

Nice Ride — The doctor and a sports car might be seem like a cliché, but my dad played his part. He had a few of them (the 1954 MG being his fave) before he started on a big family. (Toyota and Honda are now the most popular autos for MDs.) Dad always explained to me and others that doctors bought the best cars because “they need a reliable vehicle to get to them to their life-saving work.”

It's Five O'Clock — That my father was able to live to nearly 90 and most of that in good health meant he did many things right. One he told me about was “moderate consumption of alcohol.” His practice was to have two drinks every night—which he did for 50 years. Vodka was his drink of choice and he frequently called beer (my often overconsumed fave) the drink “of the common lot.” Guess that was an insult?

I’m a Believer — My dad once said “if anyone should believe in God, it’s doctors” (about 85% of doctors call themselves “spiritual,” according to a recent survey). My father was a regular church attendee and supporter and wanted his family to be religious too. For a guy who suffered much tragedy in his life (more personal, less professional) it stands to reason that his faith got him through some very bad times.

• Hobby Helps — A “physician resilience” expert believes that a key to combating burnout is for doctors to have a ready outlet. Something to take their mind, body and soul away from the pressures of medicine. My father’s success as a doctor is plainly linked to his ability to find those escapes. Some of his more offbeat diversions included: Native American art, ice skating, ballet, and Tom & Jerry cartoons.

Poor Penmanship — Without a doubt my father had the worst handwriting in the world. I never saw anything as bad. The only ones who could read his script were my mom and our local pharmacist. Dad said it was from so much note-taking in med school. As a New York native, he would have loved the state’s new law requiring that all prescriptions be digital.

On Call — Of my father’s 25 direct descendants (8 children and 17 grandchildren) just one became a physician—my nephew, Andrew L. Kelly, MD. Some 70 years separate his graduation from medical school and my father’s (both were in New York though). Andrew’s father, who just retired after 35 years in the sheet metal union, summed up best why the lack of doctors in the family: “Dad was never home with us. He left on his birthday and ours. He was gone on Christmas, July 4th, weekends, weddings, you name it. Who wants that?”