imaginima/iStock/Getty Images Plus
I failed organic chemistry. Twice. First at Brown, then at Yale. They are distinguished defeats, I’m proud to say.
The first time, I began with confidence, having succeeded in biology and regular chemistry. I felt rapport with hybridization and resonance structures and even the cycloalkanes. I embraced the beautiful notion of the covalent bond, and as a big-picture gal, I appreciated its wondrous ability to create an infinitude of carbon-based molecules. I drew them with relish, rotating them on the page, shading the orbitals in colored pencil. Everyone wanted to borrow my lab diagrams.
But on the tests, I couldn’t solve the problems. I didn’t know where to begin, what knowledge to apply. I started one question and skipped to the next, and the next, my blue-book pages a diary of confusion and panic. I was the last to finish the first exam, the first to complete the midterm, having given up halfway through. I scored a 48.
Afterward, my professor went over the exam with me. If he had asked me to take it again, right then, the results would have been no better.
The second time, I agreed to go to New Haven for the summer, a request of my father, the most enthusiastic cardiothoracic surgeon on Earth. He thought I should try once more, without other courses occupying my hippocampus. “Give it a fair shot,” he said, radiating encouragement. A classmate, Steve, studied with me each night. I made the ball-and-stick models; he aced the tests. I scored a 56 on that midterm.
My professor, an imposing academic who inspired fear and dread, sat back behind his desk and smiled at me after reviewing my work. “Maybe journalism is for you,” he said.
The shivers rippled from my abductor hallucis to my latissimus dorsi. This man did not know me. He didn’t know that I wrote pages of “news” in second grade or won national newspaper awards in high school or reported for the radio station in college. He didn’t know that I filled notebooks with observations, scrawled when I watched the customers at the bakery near campus or overheard couples argue on Amtrak. He didn’t know that the previous summer, while I was volunteering at the local hospital, an orderly handed me a pail to take to the morgue. A pail containing a foot, lopped from some leg, encased in green plastic, a bonanza for a proper premed student, perhaps, but a trauma for me.
I thanked the professor, scooped up my blue book and tore out of his office into the summer wind, fixated on his choice of disciplines. He didn’t say French, or history, or economics, I thought, racing down the stone path to the dorm. This was some kind of revelatory moment, something determining, if you can know it at the time. My professor didn’t cast me off as unworthy. He gave me permission to see myself a different way. I could have hugged him and every nucleic acid he was made of.
Within the hour, my father had arrived to pick me up. My brother, home for the summer, having completed his first year of medical school, accompanied him for the drive. Mom must have sent him as a buffer. We stopped for New Haven’s finest pizza and headed home. Dad said nothing about the turn of events or stereoisomeric relationships or what I would do with the next day or month or phase of my life.
Organic chemistry is hard. It is supposed to be hard. There is something in the vast array of reaction mechanisms that a certain kind of brain can differentiate and apply, and it’s that kind of brain that suits the practice of medicine and, therefore, serves all of us. If I break my tibia, I don’t think that in order to treat me, my orthopedic surgeon would need to know which compounds would form Grignard reagents when treated with magnesium in diethyl ether. But I would want to know that his brain could figure it out. We go to doctors because we can’t repair our own tibiae or operate on our own small intestines. Or do well in organic chemistry.
Medicine is a rarefied profession, and I say this not because my family has more than its share of physicians. I would think that the young doctors-to-be at New York University—where an organic chemistry professor was now-famously dismissed after students complained his course was too hard—would want to master organic, would need to and would kill themselves to, no matter the professor, his temperament or how hard they, with just one college year completed, deemed the material should be. Wouldn’t they want to know that they had conquered the most difficult challenge? Wouldn’t they want the confidence that comes from that achievement when they face a complication in the operating room? Or a mystifying infection? Or a pandemic? Wanting the most difficult thing made easier runs counter to the profession of medicine and is a disservice to the rest of us.
I’ve wondered what would have happened had I actually passed organic and made it through even more rigorous courses in med school. Maybe I would have loved taking care of patients, as I love writing and reporting. Maybe the career would have been more reliable, making it easier to support my two children. Maybe I would have had a knack—I did diagnose my daughter’s obscure shoulder injury when six physicians, four MRIs and three nerve-conduction tests couldn’t. Or, more likely, that discovery didn’t indicate a missed opportunity but rather the finding of a correct path, the result of a journalist doing her job—struggling, digging, persevering until she solved the problem, as hard as it was to do.