A Debt of Service

Later this month, I will be starting the post-baccalaureate premedical program at Tufts University: off to cold, heathen New England I go.  Though I earned a biology degree at Davidson College, the biology I studied focused on ecology rather than anatomy: I spent a lot of time in the woods, and not a lot of time in the chemistry lab.  So, it’s back to school for me.  Below is the statement of purpose I submitted with my application to Tufts.


A Debt of Service

For my 21st birthday, my father gave me an original print of the book To Serve Them All My Days.  Its cracked and yellowed pages tell the story of a young man who devotes his life to teaching.  It was a thoughtful and supportive gift: though I had given some thought to pursuing medicine and a handful of other careers, by that point I aimed to pursue teaching instead.  More thoughtful still was the note inscribed on the title page in my father’s narrow, precise handwriting: “May you always live a life of service.  Love, Dad.”  It is a challenge, indelible and haunting, that I cannot shake.  Whatever career I am to pursue, I am to do so in the service of others.  My father’s words recall the words of Horace Mann, the architect of the modern American education system: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”  The debt of the education I have been given is not to be measured in dollars, but rather in how I improve the lives of others.

Teaching has given me three years of challenging and rewarding professional and personal experiences.  As a middle school math and science teacher, I am essentially a Certified Professional Nerd – a role that suits me just fine.  My time in schools and classrooms has given me the chance to share my wonder of the world, as well as the goofy and profound thoughts of children.  Teaching has also taken me to South Africa.  Here, I can play fiddle with guitarists busking for change on street corners in Pretoria, or sit along the dirt roads of my village chatting with the elders, complaining about the heat and how naughty kids are these days.  Unfortunately, the reality of education seems to obstruct the fundamental relationship of teaching: the teacher-student dyad, that critical interaction that allows me to understand a student’s understanding of a concept.

When I finish my Peace Corps service next August, I want to pursue a profession that will allow me to indulge my nerdish interest in science, as well as my interest in the person-to-person dyad.  Furthermore, if my two years in the Peace Corps have taught me anything, they have taught me that service is not something you get to check off after a two-year commitment: too much work remains to be done.  Service is a lifetime commitment.  A career in medicine would allow me to continue a lifetime of learning in both the sciences and the art of interpersonal relationships while allowing me to serve the greater good.  South Africa and its neighbors call to me: I came here with a stick of chalk; one day I hope to return with a stethoscope.

Though my experience as a teacher and Peace Corps Volunteer affords me no medical credentials, it has taught me to talk to people of all kinds.  More importantly, however, it has taught me to listen.  Much of a physician’s work involves talking with people: patients foremost, but also the nurses, technicians, administrative assistants, and fellow physicians that comprise a medical team.  Dr. Hank Gregor, a physician in Boone, North Carolina, wrote the following in one of our exchanges discussing my interest in medical school: “The art and joy of the profession, and the playing field whereon good works gets done, consists of the interplay and communication between patient and physician.”  His words suggest that what a good teacher does is not so different from what a good physician does – both listen first to those they would serve before interpreting complex concepts into manageable terms.

Last December, I met a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who went on to complete medical school after her service.  Megan now serves as a physician in KwaZulu-Natal, an area hit hard by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.  Though I tend to think of doctors as students of the natural sciences first, Megan approaches her work like a sociologist, framing medicine within the social and cultural factors that affect epidemiology.  Megan’s other-centered approach to her work in rural South Africa strikes me as a certain kind of medical ideal.  Still, medicine remains a strongly scientific pursuit.  For that I look to my friend Mark Currin, a devoted disciple of the sciences.  Excitedly describing the details of anatomy and physiology he has learned in medical school, he tells me, “Howell, you would love it.”  I think he is right: when I taught grade 7 science, I dedicated the whole spring semester to dissections, using these practicals to lead discussions regarding anatomy, ecology, and evolution.  Physicians must think like scientists as well as social workers.

Throughout college, I led backpacking and whitewater trips in the highlands and gorges of the North Carolina backcountry.  My training included a 64-hour course that qualified me as a Wilderness First Responder (WFR).  In this course, I learned to stabilize broken bones, administer epinephrine for anaphylaxis and asthma, manage hypothermia and heat stroke, and execute other medical protocols in the wilderness context.  The training centered around scenarios in which we diagnosed and stabilized a patient’s condition – thrilling and practical applications in physiology, logistics, and inventiveness that appealed to both the adrenaline junkie as well as the science nerd in me.  I still remember the sense of helplessness I felt during one scenario as I watched my patient’s vitals crash.  I had neither the training nor the equipment to treat his condition: burns to the upper respiratory tract.  WFR was my first real taste of medicine: I loved the problem-solving, which required a keen understanding of both the human body and of the environmental context of the patient’s condition.  When I encounter a patient with burns to their upper respiratory tract again, I intend not to be helpless.

I do not yet know what victory, if any, I may win for humanity.  If I am going to achieve such a victory – and live up to my father’s challenge – I hope to do so by engaging in work that allows me to continue learning about science and hearing people’s stories. A life of service in medicine calls.  I hope to answer.


4 responses to “A Debt of Service

  1. We are so very proud of you, and wish you Godspeed on this next leg of your life journey of service. With love and admiration,

  2. You will make a fine doctor…one who offers up a keen intellect and curiosity and an endless well of energy…following a true calling…the very best medicine can offer! Good luck in your studies!

  3. Thoughtful words we all need to be reminded of from time to time. I think I speak for most when I say that we all look forward to hearing more about your journey by way of the humility, humbleness, humor and thoughtfulness you obviously carry with you.

    It is a chance for others to live vicariously through your adventures, while allowing individuals linked to the wider net that community development and the human condition casts to be thoroughly refreshed by like minded (and likely more eloquent) writers and doers like yourself.

    If I have any sage advice on the trappings of post bachelorate education, I would only stress that you make time for your hobbies to whatever degree possible. It will allow you to take a much needed mental break, and you will always come back to your studies with new questions, new answers, and a better understanding of how you will best fit into this new world you are helping to create.

    Cheers, Skal, Proost and Salute to you my friend.


  4. What a fine example of leadership and service your parents have provided! We wish you Godspeed as you enter this next phase of your
    journey in determining how to best serve humanity. You are a fine young man, and we are so proud of you! Catherine and I enjoyed our walk through Gorges; and, even though no first aid was required, we have confidence that you could have saved us in any situation!! I look forward to calling you Dr. Burke!
    Love and best wishes for every success along the way,
    Sara and all of the Chapmans

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