4 Women on Leaving Medicine to Pursue Their Passion

4 Women on Leaving Medicine to Pursue Their Passion

As a child, medicine was seen as the “ultimate career.” In school dramas, the coolest and smartest kids were roped to play “doctor” with the stethoscope hanging over their necks. I was definitely one of those who bore the constant stream of people’s advice to study medicine.

As a young adult, I saw way too many people retaking the university entrance exams just to get into Medicine. After seeing firsthand—thanks to my friends at university—their struggles and complains, it’s hard to not wonder if it was ever a true passion. In my opinion (and asides from Law which I eventually went on to study), Medicine seems to be the one profession individuals are constantly quitting to pursue their true passion.

I got curious about their journeys, and 4 awesome ladies agreed to share the whys and the hows, the challenges, and their truths!

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Isioma

My name is Isioma Osaje. I’m Ika from Delta State in Nigeria. As far as a day job goes, it is easiest to say that I am a filmmaker and I work in Nollywood. The long answer is that I founded/run a talent agency (Agency 106) and I work as a producer, even though I recently worked in the Assistant Directing department and I enjoyed it, so maybe I’ll do more of that. I like to read and I’m currently addicted to the microblogging site, Medium. I don’t think I’m a “fun” person, but I’m also like not “not fun.” I really just enjoy living purposefully.

Why medicine?

I was good at biology, and medicine seemed like a good fit. I also liked economics and geography, but at the time I didn’t think there was any course that combined all three. So a whisper here and a nudge there and I figured when it was time to go to university, that medicine worked. I wrote an entrance exam to Igbinedion University, aced it, and got admitted to the college of medicine. I guess I also did okay enough in my WAEC exams (secondary school leaving exams), so that plus the test and voila!

University was okay. I find that if I find an ally or a reason, I am able to get through most things. I enjoyed my first year a lot. I was part of a fun circle of friends and that was really cool; maybe I was a bit of a loner before University, so being part of a group was enjoyable. But by my fourth year studying medicine, I had actually checked out of the whole university experience. It became a thing that just needed finishing.

I disliked that studying medicine was only all about medicine. Besides one classmate who is now my oldest friend, I could not understand how all my classmates only wanted to do or talk about was medicine. I guess in hindsight maybe my friend and I were the weird ones. He is studying for a master’s in acting at UCLA right now by the way.

As far as the actual studying bit, anatomy was my favourite part of medicine. I guess we should thank biology for that. If I stuck with medicine, I would have been a surgeon. To be frank, everything else bored me.

On the decision to leave

It was towards the end of my third year. In Nigeria, it’s pre-clinical medicine for three years and then clinical medicine for four. Random delays in the system meant that we actually did this for five years, so I spent eight years chasing my medical degree.

The pre-clinicals involved the foundation and no interaction with human patients and by the time this was coming to an end, I had started having leanings in my spirit that medicine was not how I was going to fulfil my purpose. By the time I had spent my first three months in clinical medicine, I knew 100 percent that this didn’t fulfil me.

So I figured I had three or four years to build an alternate CV. I didn’t want to graduate, go looking for a job in an alternate industry and have to explain why I could do this, even if my educational background is in medicine. I have no idea how I knew to be strategic about this, because it isn’t like I had any guidance or mentors at the time and I was 19, so I believe it was God orchestrating my steps.

I thought about other interests I had before I locked on to medicine and two things came to mind. The first was writing. I used to write (pen and paper style) as a young child/teen and had books where I had written fictional stories. I don’t know if they were any good, but because I read an enormous amount (novels, newspapers, dictionaries and anything with words) growing up, writing came easy— I had the vocabulary and the imagination.

The second was I enjoyed listening to the radio and dreaming up a career as a radio presenter. Armed with those two likes, I started writing and posting articles online and I got an internship at a radio station in Benin city. Fate was kind and I landed my first job while still in my fourth year. I could work from school because it was an online assistant editor position and I spent all my holidays at their office in Lagos. A year later, I left my internship on radio because I realised that I didn’t want to be a radio OAP anymore.

Making it public—consequences and reactions

Getting that job as an assistant editor meant that I made new friends and the only Isioma they knew was this version, so I didn’t need to explain anything to them. Extended family is great, but they weren’t responsible for me, so that was that. My parents were the only people I owed any explanations. It took some time; they knew about my job and my other interests and I had hinted repeatedly that I liked things other than medicine, but we danced around this issue until I graduated.

As soon as I returned from my induction ceremony in Abuja, I made the grand announcement that I wasn’t going to practice medicine. There was push back, but I’m pretty strong willed—they had raised an opinionated woman and I knew that their concern came from a place of love. Medicine is safe and provides relative job security and by this time I had segued into public relations and talent management, so they were worried about this risk I was taking. Here we are a few years later and I imagine they are proud or at least less worried that I’ll starve to death.

The challenges

I guess you could say finances in the early years. I am not as rich as I expect to be, but I don’t worry about money anymore. Between delayed gratification and the fulfilment I get from working in film, I’m good. I didn’t start afresh as I started building my CV while I was still an undergrad. Luckily also no aggrieved family.

The present—and how it differs

My job running Agency 106 is pretty much strategy and day-to-day running of the “business” side of things, so my clients can concentrate on the “show.” As a producer I manage people and resources (time, money, etc). Both jobs have similar threads, and my experience as a manager and the skill set of people management, negotiation, and scheduling came in very handy when I took on producing.

As for how these compare to medicine, it’s quite different. I think the only skill that I was able to transfer is the ability to consume a truckload of information, but maybe that is really because I already had a thirst for information as a child. I have no regrets whatsoever. If I wake up one day and decide I want to be a doctor, I will dust my medical license, renew it, and go do that. Life is for exploring and living to the fullness of your potential. If you still have breath in your lungs and a beating heart, the game is still on.

Advice for people on the “wrong” career path

Take the leap, but don’t leap blindly. I was strategic with my decision and I pondered it for a long time. The grass is as green as you make it and sometimes, maybe yellow grass is not so bad. A key indicator that you’re not where you need to be is: Would you do this if you didn’t have to worry about money or third party opinions? Would you do this if you were exhausted to your bones? For me and with medicine, the answer was no.

You have to be honest with yourself, and don’t be afraid of the difficult questions; ask and answer them. We all have a purpose and there are many ways to fulfil your purpose. However life is not guaranteed and you should do what lights that fire in your heart.

Again, do not leap blindly, make a plan, follow the plan, course correct when you need to, and it will work out. Most importantly, because this has been an important aspect of my career growth, you need help—mentors, sponsors, and allies. I had a dream to be something else and people helped and continue to help make that come through by supporting, teaching and giving me opportunities. You need a community—join one or build your own.


Ruth

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Hi, I’m Ruth. I head operations and volunteer at Slum2School Africa. I’m a storyteller, a believer, and an arts lover—a multi-passionate person going after all she loves with the time she has. I love to inspire people into being the best version of themselves, because there’s just so much truth I see and believe about who they really are. I love the arts (ah! I already said that) and how God and every form of existence expresses itself through arts. I’m a medical doctor by training, a repenting workaholic, and if I say, “I’m on it,” I’m beating the odds and getting the job done.

Why medicine?

Studying medicine was partly influenced, and partly personal. I mentioned at some point that I wanted to be a doctor (you know all we say in elementary school). Well, “everyone” sort of held on to that. Then at age ten, I also fell really sick with an unexplained diagnosis, which was later treated after head surgery. That seemed to point me all the more to medicine and specifically, neurosurgery. This experience and all the discussions before then shaped my resolve to study medicine.

Personally, I did not know what other course to study outside medicine, so it felt easier than anything else I could consider. All I ever wanted to do was to help people, to heal, especially in the ways that weren’t physical, to put them first and love them like there was no tomorrow—leave them better than I met them.

I got into medical school without any hassle and graduated from the National Medical University, Kyiv, Ukraine. The experience was different from all I hoped. My positive experiences rarely had anything to do with my classes but more about the priceless relationships nurtured. I met people who are not just some of my best friends till this day but have now been adopted into my family. I also had some incredible teachers (especially the doctors who taught paediatrics!) whom I hope to keep proud. Many excellent teachers and course mates inspired me to want to do well wherever I decided was home for me (career wise).

My favourite moment on this path had to be Graz, 2016. I took an externship in the Paediatric Surgery department at the Medical University of Graz, Austria. The doctors were cooler than those in Grey’s Anatomy. The people were super kind and the country? Green, quiet, peaceful. Fellow externs were amazing and I fell head over heels in love with paediatric surgery—till this day.

On the decision to leave

I was always unsure, but like I said, what else could I do if I opted out. How would I break everyone’s heart? I had been scared of staying on a path I wasn’t sure was for me. The uncertainty was rattling. I couldn’t reconcile my love for surgery with all I was experiencing.

I felt like I was constantly suffocating—even with good grades. I didn’t have a satisfactory way to express all that love and courage and creativity inside me. I could have continued for everyone’s sake but I believed I owed it to God, to myself, to everyone else (even if they don’t realise or appreciate this) to live my truth at whatever phase I am in. I learned I had to own my truth and speak up, that I didn’t owe a lot of people any explanations and I could be whoever I needed to be regardless. I had to do this.

The final straw was in October last year when I woke up with a question: If you had 2 years to live, how would you live?

Making it public—consequences and reactions

In October 2018, I sent a message to some of my closest friends that I was putting a pause on medical practice—temporarily or permanently. 98 percent of them are medical doctors/students who understand all that goes into being through medical school. Their reactions are embedded in my memory as a lifetime ovation from people I had come to love, cherish, and honor.

I also spoke with my sisters. I was unsure how they would react. I rehearsed, panicked, and prayed. I love them so much but I needed to give them a 6-7 year rundown of parts of my life and passions. I wanted them to get my truth, to share in it, but I also knew the high chances of never being understood or accepted for the decision I was making and I had to be ready to live with any negative outcomes. I didn’t know if the strength & courage I had would last that long, but the conversation with my sisters took a lot of dead weight off me. It brought us so much closer together. They spread out my wings and told me never to allow anything clip them. Things also went reasonably well with my parents too. At the end, I realised I should never have been scared.

It wasn’t easy in any way. I can’t fully describe all that went on within me. These conversations were mountains I had to climb and it’s still surreal that I did. I rounded up at the hospital earlier in the year so I did not tell the doctors I learned/worked with. I spoke with two of my guardians, and my current boss, and I was okay.  

Once I owned my truth, it felt like I could never go low—nothing could knock me down.

The challenges

Someone I care about who still worries whether I’m okay, whether I’m happy, whether I’ve given up every other dream (medicine and otherwise) to be where I am. I am okay. I am happy and I understand that it’s a process for them to get it. Sometimes I’m so discouraged and exhausted from these conversations but I also understand that this is a lot and it’ll take some people a little more time.

The present—and how it differs

I head operations at Slum2School Africa (and I have this offer of a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing still waiting for me). I’m not suffocating and I’m still in the process of expressing love, passion, commitment, and all it takes to yield and hopefully, exceed the required results. It’s a wave of different challenges and I’ve decided to ride them all and not be afraid or consumed. I’m writing and working on other expressions through the arts. Regrets? нисколько! (Russian for “none”)

Advice for people on the “wrong” career path

You owe it to God who created you and yourself to live your truth. DO NOT live based on the expectations of people. Seek counsel and share your uncertainties with a wise person/people. Feelings lie. Feelings sway based on a lot of things. Find a way to get clarity on what you do, why you do what you do, and why you think you need to be somewhere else. That you feel you need to be out of medicine or your current career doesn’t automatically imply it’s the right thing to do. Don’t remain because of  fear, don’t switch because it seems to be a trend or a courageous thing to do. You can chart your course in wisdom. Choose that!


Victoria

I’m Victoria Adewole. I would describe myself as Londoner—British Nigerian—fairly outspoken, very opinionated. Innovation and MedTech person by day, armchair politician and news junky by night.

Why medicine?

I studied at Imperial and graduated in 2010. It was my first choice university. I remember that applying to medicine was stressful. It required a lot of forward thinking and preparation. Medicine, unlike most courses at the time required interviews and I remember that being pretty stressful and you couldn’t quite tell how it went and whether you performed well enough.

Overall I enjoyed studying medicine. There were really tough times—the sheer volume in second year was overwhelming and once you get to the clinics, there are lot of different relationships to navigate which can be very challenging for a young person.

I enjoyed lectures and really liked anatomy labs where we were lucky enough to do dissections. I did not enjoy being on medical clinical rotations.

On the decision to leave

When did I first think about leaving? Third year. I really did not like clinical medicine but then I rotated onto surgery which was much more enjoyable. By the time I left medical school, I decided I was definitely a surgeon, not a medic and so I pursued surgical training (plus 2010 was not the time to graduate into the general job market).

As a medical graduate you were guaranteed a job, so it would have been unwise to leave at that point. I quit clinical practice (for the first time) after the first part of my surgical training—at the end of core surgical training—because I had been more or less miserable for 18 months. When I looked at what was wrong in life, surgery was the thing that needed to go in order to balance the rest. I was unemployed for a short period and I think I panicked and so I went back to a surgical job. It didn’t take me long to be completely miserable again—about 6 months—and I left (again) to go back to university because I felt that this would give me enough space and a decent platform for career change.

Making it public—consequences and reactions

At the time I decided to leave, the department I was working in was relocating so I used that change as an opportunity to excuse myself. However, I don’t think anyone was really surprised to hear I was leaving; I think my misery was visible to most people by that point.

I told my family I was going back to university and no one was really that surprised. Everyone already thought of me as bookworm who loves to study.

The challenges

Finance has definitely been a challenge, especially as I self funded a master’s degree in London. I definitely miss medicine money—although the pay isn’t amazing, it’s more than I earn at the moment. There’s also a loss of status to contend with. When you’re a doctor, you think “a doctor’s status in society is not what it used to be,” but it’s definitely different to being a “lay person.” There’s a lot of identity tied up in medicine and finding an identity outside of medicine is difficult. From age 18, you’re distinct from your peers at university because you are already training to be something specific. At medical school we already start to label ourselves and each other by the specialties we’re interested in or that match our temperaments.

The present—and how it differs

I’m work in Innovation in the U.K’s biggest biomedical charity. It’s great—I get to influence health care research and delivery at a national and international level. I organise project-related investments for researchers and entrepreneurs trying to turn research into useful medical technology and devices. I get to champion and pitch the projects I believe in to my team for investment. In my job I work with a lot of clinicians, although on my team there are not many others with medical training. I do get to use my medical training as well as the Global Health MSc I completed in 2017. It has been a long journey—difficult at times; convoluted—but I don’t regret it.

Advice for people on the “wrong” career path

I would say, think carefully about what it is you want or like and what you don’t. It may be that changing speciality or having a portfolio career could be more suitable than leaving medicine all together. Speak to as many people as you can and remember, there’s a whole world of careers out there, outside of medicine. You will find something if you do decide to leave and if worst comes to worst, you can always go back.


Afoma

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My name is Afoma Umesi. I’m a freelance editor; I help content creators, companies, and authors make their work the best versions possible. Although born and raised in Nigeria, right now, I live and work in a tiny Caribbean island called St. Vincent & the Grenadines. Most people know me as book-obsessed and a massive grammar nerd—I am both of those things.

Why medicine?

I loved helping people feel better. I’ve wanted to be a doctor for most of my life—I have a photo of myself from primary school dressed as a doctor for career day with a stethoscope we borrowed from my neighbor, who was an actual doctor. It wasn’t too hard to get into medicine. I passed an overseas scholarship exam at 15 and after a year of A levels, I moved to Ukraine to study medicine because I was told I wouldn’t get admitted in the UK since I was under 18.

Medical school was harrowing. Yet it was a truly expansive, challenging experience that I do not regret and wouldn’t change. I’ve never learned so much in what felt like such little time. I loved the challenge and the learning, but I hated the competitiveness. I hated that some people wanted to impress teachers so much that they’d throw anyone under the bus. I hated that I compared myself with other people all the time. And of course, it takes a toll on your mental health—I was sleeping four hours a night, my moods were all over the place, I realised I was myopic in my second year.

For the first three years in Ukraine, we battled with the grueling schedule of Ukrainian medical schools—they’re not like other parts of the world. You could be dismissed from a class for being two minutes late and attendance was mandatory for all classes. Missed classes had to be “reworked” on weekends and we had a strict eight to four schedule on weekdays, if I remember correctly. May have been eight to five. We also had to take courses like Latin, History of Medicine, Philosophy, and SPORTS to list a few, in addition to anatomy and all our actual medical courses. Sports was compulsory and you couldn’t advance to the next year without a passing grade. Add learning Russian and living in sub-zero temperatures for half the year—it was hard.

When I moved to the Caribbean (I left Ukraine because of the civil unrest in Ukraine), things got a bit easier. The weather was better, my support system improved, and I enjoyed my clinical rotations. I loved seeing real patients and watching myself become a real doctor, seeing my knowledge take shape, become useful. And meeting people, being in surgery—essentially living my Grey’s Anatomy dream was satisfying at first.

On the decision to leave

I fell in love with something else. Somewhere near the end of medical school, I became more active spiritually. I started volunteering more hours as a Bible teacher and it changed my life. My work teaching people about the Bible is more meaningful to me than medicine was. More than that, it gave me more than it took from me and I still got to give to other people.

I struggled for a year, feeling torn about walking away from something I’d slaved for in the past six years, but I couldn’t do both. I was also getting really frustrated by the way medicine swallows your entire life. I hated working to impress people all the time, competing, trying to “prove my worth.” As a medical student, your worth is reduced to numbers—scores.

At the end, it came down to what made me truly happy and fulfilled. Most doctors I knew were unhappy. They were tired all the time, hardly saw their families. The ones who loved their work were worse. They lived in the hospital. I appreciated having doctors like that teach me and treat me, but I didn’t want that life. Everyone says it gets better when you rise up the ranks, but I don’t want to spend my youth waiting to live the life I want.

Making it public—consequences and reactions

I sat with the idea for about a year before I told my parents. In that time, I told a few friends who were incredibly supportive. None of my friends doubted me for a second. They thought I’d be fine. A few were worried that I’d worked so hard and was walking away, but ultimately most were so proud of me. I will always remember all the people who told me how proud they were of me. Because of them, I felt seen and loved and not alone in such a terrifying time.

The challenges

Right now, nothing is challenging anymore. But then, it took a long time to achieve complete acceptance. To put a dream to rest for new dreams. My parents were really worried— understandably so. They worried about how I would cope, what I would do for work, and how I would find stability. Money was tight too. I did everything—babysat, cleaned, tutored—to support myself.

The present—and how it differs.

I feel like myself. I’ve never felt so much peace and purpose and I am so glad that I stood my ground. My faith is the center of my life, and I am yet to be disappointed. I have a job I LOVE (and even if I didn’t love my job, it would still be OKAY). I work from home four days a week and volunteer the remaining three days. I see my friends who’ve become licensed doctors and I’m thrilled for them, because like me, they’re living the lives they want.

The only things I miss are the perks—seeing a doctor without an appointment like I did during my rotations, rolling into the wards at non-visiting hours, scoring (safe) prescriptions from doctors without hassle, etc. Other than that, I earn enough to support myself, I’m only competing with myself, my employers aren’t constantly “scoring” me, and my job isn’t life or death—it feels like living my best life every day.

Advice for people on the “wrong” career path.

I’ll share the illustration that kept me going.

Imagine you’re driving somewhere. The trip takes seven days by car and you’ve been driving for five days. You have a purpose at your destination. But then you realise you’ve been going the wrong way for the last five days. Would you just keep driving nowhere because you’ve “come so far” or would you find your way to your purpose?

For me, the answer was obvious.

It’s hard and people are going to be upset because they love you and they’re afraid, and maybe they’re already invested in the career they thought you’d have. They were sure they were going to have that doctor-niece or lawyer-friend, but you just burst their bubble. Give them time to catch up. Make your decision first and be okay with it before you tell anyone else. Know your reasons for your choice, and in the end, everybody will be okay.


I loved all of these! More importantly I’m super glad that people are finding the courage to leave unhappy careers, and forge new paths.

Can you relate with any of this? Are you currently working in your preferred field? Please share your thoughts.  

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