Physician Health

Dr. Wilson: The moment I knew medicine was my calling


Physicians are privileged to see patients at their most vulnerable, to reshape lives and continually revitalize the nation’s health system. In a challenging practice environment, physicians remain driven by the power of healing and the indelible connections they form with patients and families.

The AMA Wire® “When I Knew Medicine Was My Calling” series profiles a wide variety of doctors, offering a glimpse into the lives of the busy women and men navigating new courses in their careers and in American medicine. No matter their age, their specialty or their career stage, they were born to do this and they tell us why.

Share a moment with: Modena Wilson, MD, MPH, senior vice president, chief health and science officer at the AMA, Chicago.

The moment I knew medicine was my calling: I think I, like many other doctors, knew medicine was my calling way before medical school.

An experience from medical school that kept me going: In the fourth year of medical school, I spent a month with a primary care physician in a rural town. I lived with him and his wife in their home. I spent the whole of his practice days with him observing and assisting, including making hospital rounds in the morning, seeing patients in the practice, eating in the doctors’ lounge, discussing patients and health care with his colleagues and reading EKGs after dinner at night. His interactions in a particular case that month came together into a picture of what it can mean to be a physician that I’ll never forget. 

This particular physician practiced in the town where his father, also a doctor, had practiced. And when his father died, the younger doctor inherited many of his father’s patients. The month I was there, one of those patients had a lingering course of cardiac failure and was reaching his final days. We made a house call early in the month, during which I met members of the family, and watched the doctor talk with the patient and his family about the course of his illness, gently projecting for them what to expect.

Later in the month, the patient’s condition deteriorated. We received an evening call that the patient was struggling to breathe and met the patient and family at the hospital. The doctor accommodated the patient’s family and made sure that the patient’s location in the hospital was peaceful. He did not order any extraordinary measures. He and I stayed with the patient and family as the patient slowly lapsed into unconsciousness and quietly passed on. After consoling the family and exchanging remembrances of a life well-lived, and after all the “paperwork” had been finished, the doctor and I left for his home. As we walked through the parking lot toward his car, the doctor paused, which was quite unusual for him. I stopped and was touched to see that he had tears in his eyes. He said simply that the patient had been his father’s best friend. And then we walked on to the car.

I had seen what it was like to be part of the lives of patients and families when they were most in need. It is an awesome privilege.

An experience from residency that confirmed my calling as a physician: My oldest son was born when I was a third-year resident. When he was about one month old, I went back to work. My first night on call was as a supervising resident in the pediatric ICU. 

That night, a 4-month-old who was obviously extremely ill was admitted through the emergency room. Like my son, he was a redhead. It became clear pretty quickly that the tiny patient had a devastating bacterial infection, which few survive. It was unlikely, the consultants warned me, that we could save him. I spent the night trying my best to do so and also talking frequently with his mother, who was appropriately worried. She was alone, because the father—who was on the road for business—was far away, and the illness had come on quickly and in the night, so no other family member had been contacted.

We did not win the battle. The baby died in the wee hours of the night. I would have been terribly sad even if it had not been my first night away from my 1-month-old, but that fact made the experience almost unbearably intense. It did not drive me away from medicine, however. It committed me to the profession all the more strongly.

How does your journey as a physician inform your work at the AMA? Because of these experiences, and many that are less melodramatic, I believe fiercely that practicing medicine is more than a job. It is a career that can still be recommended, even though the required knowledge and skills will continue to evolve and being a physician is a lifetime commitment to learning and caring. It confers an obligation to keep current, to behave honorably and to think first of the needs of the patient. It includes trying to fix the system on behalf of patients where it is broken and advocating for the conservation of medical professionalism. For me, medicine is not built of transactions, but of relationships—some short, some enduring. I think these experiences and views provide a context for everything I do at AMA.