While riding the school bus in high school, Maggie Kozel had an epiphany. She decided she wanted to become a doctor and save lives. She envisioned herself wearing a white lab coat, handily diagnosing illnesses, ordering tests, and writing prescriptions. She saw herself happy, successful, and respected.
This was a pretty lofty goal for the child of an alcoholic family whose key to childhood survival had been to fly below the radar of her parent’s bouts of drunken rage. But that’s exactly what she did; she studied hard, worked several part-time jobs, and was eventually accepted into an elite medical school.
While completing an internship at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Maggie found her passion as a pediatrician. “By the end of that pediatric internship rotation I had acquired an army of puppets and toys for my own amusement and that of my patients and came to realize that I felt more at home in my doctor skin than I ever had.” She went on to experience universal medicine while working as a navy pediatrician and then felt culture shock when she went into private practice and encountered the complexities of the U.S. health care system: from confronting HMOs and managed care, to dealing with the litigation anxiety that characterizes the life of an American doctor. The modern health-care system she experienced upended her idealistic view of medicine. And she watched as the method of paying for health care reached its way into the exam room, putting a stranglehold on how doctors practice, and profoundly influencing the doctor-patient relationship. Ultimately, Maggie made a heart-wrenching decision to leave medicine to teach high school chemistry and tells about her experiences in the newly released book, The Color of Atmosphere. I spoke with Maggie to find out why she and other doctors are increasingly walking away from a profession they love and to find out her advice to other women who are considering a career change. Q&A with Maggie Kozel, MD Question: How does a girl from Point Lookout, Long Island, wind up at Georgetown Medical School? Maggie: I was fortunate to find something I was passionate about at a pretty young age. I was fifteen years old when I started studying biology, and I really became infatuated with it. Everything else paled in comparison. It’s what I wanted to do with my life. Being a doctor was the only career I was aware of in the life sciences, so it seemed the obvious choice. And the beauty of being a naïve fifteen year old was that it never occurred to me that it might be too hard or that I might not get into med school. I just assumed that if I wanted it badly enough, I could do it. I think that’s a real advantage for a young person – to be a little oblivious to all the reasons a plan might not work. The other significant piece was that I saw a medical career as my ticket out of what was a pretty miserable home life. I needed to know that there was something much better out there waiting for me. Question: With so many doctors interested in lucrative specializations, why were you interested in becoming a pediatrician? Maggie: When I was 25 years old, I didn’t think money mattered. And truth be told, when you work 100 hours a week or more in the hospital, money doesn’t matter all that much. Also, I think we were all more naïve about income than today’s young doctors are. Most of the established doctors we worked with all made extremely good incomes without a lot of hassle. We didn’t see what was coming down the road It was also a very idealistic age – I wanted to do direct patient care. I loved the personal interaction and the holistic approach to health that you see in primary care. And most of all I loved how healthy children are; they don’t come in with the self-inflicted lifestyle ailments that plague so many adults in our society, and the restorative abilities of their bodies when they do become ill is practically miraculous. Pediatric medicine is an amazing field. Unfortunately, the way I earned a living came to be a far cry from what I was actually skilled in. Continue reading this interview at Forbes.com. Maggie Kozel’s book, The Color of Atmosphere: One Doctor’s Journey In and Out of Medicine, is available now.