Stethoscope to Sketchpad
-Written in October 2017It's been almost a year since I last stepped foot into a patient room. It feels like a lifetime ago. On the surface, switching from a physician to an illustrator seems backwards and unimaginable. I'm not sure anyone could have guessed the 180 degree turn my life has taken over the past year. What I do know for certain, is that I have never regretted my decision to leave medicine in pursuit of a different passion. Here is how and why The Bonnie Fly came to be, what has inspired me to create, and why I will never look back.
Up until a year ago, you probably couldn't have drawn a straighter line than my path to pediatric residency in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I graduated high school on a full scholarship to Louisiana State University, and in four years I entered into medical school as the top ranked student in the College of Science. Before I knew it, I had matched into a competitive residency program at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and married the girl of my dreams.
That might be the most boring paragraph on this page. There were no bumps, no curves, and it certainly was void of any road blocks. This all changed before I even entered into a Pennsylvania hospital as a fully-fledged resident.
Last April, in the four month break between medical school and residency, I flew up from my home state of Alabama to meet my then-fiance in Pittsburgh. During the week we planned to move into a new apartment and settle in before graduation, the start of residency, and the upcoming wedding. Since we had been apart during my schooling and her job in Pennsylvania, the excitement was building for my big move.
As any obsessed fisherman would do in this situation, I found time to try to fill the empty space soon to be left behind on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. A few Google searches led me to the streams surrounding Pittsburgh, and soon I was able to send pictures back home of the colorful trout roaming the hills. Somehow, the experience made moving even easier. I had found my reliable escape from the hustle and bustle of medicine. It had helped me persevere through the roughest exams and rotations, and I could hopefully lean on it again.
Looking back, I remember the sign on the stream. It even made me pause and stare for a moment because it was out of the ordinary for a southern-bred fisherman. Below the painted welcome in the parking lot a plank read: "CHECK FOR TICKS." Medical experience is partially to blame for my reaction. After constant MRSA, TB, and diarrheal precautions, I was numb to the thought of surrounding illness and disease. In that moment in time, I hardly gave the sign any further thought. No bug spray, no full body inspections, no problem. For three full days, I trudged through brush and weeds in pursuit of trout.
After a great week in Steel City, I returned home to fish out the last few months of my time in Mobile. In that span, I have hardly been happier in my life. Between the excitement of finally being titled a real "doctor" to tying the knot, everything seemed perfect.
I took little notice of the week of night sweats, chills, and fevers that soon followed. Sure, it was odd that I could hardly get out of bed without nausea for a whole week, but it went away eventually. Probably, just something I ate. I even walked up the stage to receive my diploma with a limp from a painful, golf-ball sized mass on my right hip, chalking it up as a torn muscle from a recent long run.
In the back of my mind, I knew what the cause might be, but I had no time or left over money to worry about visiting the doctor. The looming stress of internship kept me in denial and it was the last thing I needed to keep me from fishing.
In the blink of an eye, the weekend before my wedding arrived. I needed one final fishing trip to Dauphin Island to say goodbye. One more saltwater trout. Just one more before being sentenced to a landlocked life. Despite a sharp, searing headache that kept me bedridden the days prior, I was craving the last smell salt air.
We hopped in the boat and headed to the West End of the island full steam ahead. The breeze on my face is the first thing that caught my attention. I couldn't blink to keep my contact lenses wet. Was there something scratching my eye? Gradually over the course of several hours, I lost my ability to raise my right eyebrow or fully close my mouth to whistle. At that moment, I knew I had Lyme Disease. Bell's Palsy, the nagging symptoms, and the painful mass (which turned out to be an inflamed lymph node) over the last few months suddenly painted the stereotypical case study. The only thing that had been missing was a target shaped rash (which most people don't have or report at diagnosis).
We rushed to an emergency care clinic, and I informed the doctor that I had a tick-borne illness. Without pause, I recounted my symptoms, detailed history, and handed her the diagnosis in the hopes of a quick fix. She then handed me a prescription for antibiotics and steroids. Fortunately, the disease was cured without further complication.
That would have been a great ending. Instead, I was told that it was more likely stress and I was an over-reacting young doctor. I was promptly given a handout of information for dummies on Lyme Disease, and somehow convinced myself I was overthinking the situation. I went home with steroids for a "viral infection," and gladly accepted a milder alternative.
I may be one of the few people who can say that my Bell's Palsy was vividly documented in wedding photos. Outwardly, I looked like I wanted to murder our cameraman. Despite the awful appearance, I have never been happier in my life. After all, the most beautiful woman in the world was now Mrs. Finnorn and I was surrounded by family and friends. Joyfully, my wife and I departed on our honeymoon the following morning, and within three days my face was able to function normally again. Out of sight, out of mind.
Residency started before I could blink (pun intended). The first few weeks were some of the most stressed weeks of my life and the previous months symptoms hardly crossed my mind. In the wave of a magic wand, I went from the medical student in the back of the room to the doctor signing prescriptions and bearing actual responsibility over the lives of children on chemotherapy and antibiotics. At the time, even Tylenol dosing was terrifying. My own health was my last concern.
A month into my internship, I started noticing something still wasn't quite right. My wife recalls me frequently repeating, "Something feels strange." Like most medical students, I have always been accustomed to memorizing large amounts of information in a short amount of time. It's how we survive. You learn on the fly and gradually build upon prior experience until it becomes second nature. But, in that moment, I found myself getting lost in familiar buildings and having trouble finding the words for common items. When the traffic lights on the road would turn red to green, I would have to remind myself that it meant "go," only to arrive at my destination and have no recollection of why I was there. The ability to fluidly put thoughts together and just simple, short-term memory seemed to have disappeared gradually. And still, a few months after graduation, I could hardly run with the pain of my hip nagging my every move.
In the back of my mind, I wondered if the stress of medicine had finally caught up with me. Through the years I have always been even-keeled, but maybe I had finally hit a breaking point. As it started affecting my work, I approached my program director, who happened to be an expert on Lyme Disease. Without a doubt, he informed me to get tested for Lyme Disease and seek treatment, but reassured me that the outcomes were good in people with similar chronic symptoms.
In July 2016, over three months from my initial visit to Pittsburgh, I was finally tested for Lyme Disease. Of the nearly dozen markers of the bacteria on Western Blot and ELISA, I was positive for every single one. Finally, I was treated with a month of doxycycline and given time off to allow my mind to recover.
Over the course of the next several months, I attempted to return to the hospital, with the continued support and reassurance of colleagues. I couldn't stand missing my intern experience and the feeling of falling behind. Every day I spent at home, I could feel the extra load I was putting on the other residents. The guilt weighed on me deeply. In desperation, I pretended everything had healed and returned to push through a few weeks. In order to compensate, I kept diligent notes to make up for my memory. And still, I found myself getting lost in the places I knew well and forgetting why I had walked into different patient rooms and offices. It was like the fogginess of NyQuil during a cold, and I couldn't shake it.
Worried about the safety of my patients, I requested more time off. From my perspective, if I was the parent of my patients, there is no way I would want a doctor who was struggling with memory. I returned home defeated, unsure of what to do and questioning every decision I had ever made.
As you can imagine, the stress of feeling your mind slipping can take a toll on your will. Every day I questioned the real cause of the loss of memory and executive function. I started to second guess every decision that lead me to becoming a resident. And each day, I wondered if my worst fears were coming true, and the abilities that had brought me so far had left me for good. All the while, the hospital stared at me from the bedroom window and the feeling of failure was overwhelming.
In those long, lonely days inside my own mind, I came to realize the importance of having people that love you. My wife saw every bit of the disease at it's worst and showed unwavering support, even though I ruined our once-in-a-lifetime wedding photos. You would think that a conflict of this magnitude would have an effect on a new marriage, but it strengthened our bond. Friends and family flew up to spend time with me and called me daily. In that time, despite my internal despair, I discovered the value of love and its capacity to heal.
Week by week, I regained more concentration and focus for hours, then days, and eventually full weeks. Driving was no longer requiring extra focus. Constant physical activity helped ease my hip pain. To pass the time, I even found myself memorizing recipes and more easily reading articles, while accurately recounting the details.
For years, I had accepted my path towards medicine. I never once truly questioned the decision or asked why I wouldn't want to be a physician. Looking back at my initial thought process, it seemed like the best use of my abilities and love of natural sciences, as well as the most practical approach to a stable life. It was the easy choice. Once you accept that fate and get far enough into student loans and the culture of the medical field you forget that there was ever a choice. Turning back seems impossible.
But, there were always hints of regret. It wasn't uncommon for me to outwardly speak of wishes to become an engineer. Fishing was my excuse to get away from anything that had to do with medicine. I hated the talk about medicine outside of work, and even avoided spending my time off with anyone associated with a hospital. The patient interaction and remarkable experiences inspired me and kept me going through my second guesses, but the mental burnout and time commitment away from home were starting to catch up.
And finally, something had knocked me down and forced me to rethink my future. I might be the only person in this world thankful for contracting Lyme Disease. I'm not sure anything else could have veered me off course. It was in this long, illness-induced reflection that I started to find a new focus for my future.
Early on in my medical leave, I took a break from the monotony of the house and visited a local fly shop. That was when I took notice of the decals and apparel on the walls. I was so drawn by every color and detail. Since high school, my notes and books were littered with similar artwork. I purchased some of the decals in the store made by Andrea Larko. They sat on my desk for months, untouched, but constantly in my sight.
In that same span, coincidentally, my aunt sent me a Z-tangle coloring book to help pass the time. I sat on the couch one morning and found myself coloring inside the lines. In all honesty, I really didn't give artwork much thought, but it calmed me and brought me more focus. In search of a similar professional future and escaping residency, I turned my sights on biomedical engineering, pursuing an MBA, or trying to make it into the pharmaceutical industry.
That coloring book relief led me back to the sketchpad. I decided to sit down and pick up my former skills at charcoal and graphite. I took a photo of a trout from the previous spring and spent an Auburn-LSU football game drawing in front of the TV. I showed my wife and family, and the first seeds were sown. All the while, I stared at those decals and thought, "I bet I can learn how to do something like that."
In time, my decision to finally leave medicine was easy, yet incredibly difficult. I knew I no longer wanted to be a physician. At the same time, I was torn morally. Once you get this far, is there now an undeniable, moral obligation to treat the sick and suffering? Had I gone too far to turn back, despite the burned out feeling in my heart?
In the end, it came down to one thing. Deep down, I felt that it took a genuine passion to be an effective clinician, and I never really had that drive from the beginning. The passion of competition and continuous learning had kept me afloat for years without second thought. Sure, I could return to push through day by day, regardless of my own feelings and mental health. But how can a physician really give 100% effort and care with so much regret and internal conflict, especially when dealing with the lives of children and young adults? There wasn't a bone in my body that wanted to step back into a hospital.
In December of last year, I walked into the residency office and returned my badge. The plan at the time was to enter into biomedical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh and find a way to use my knowledge in another form.
To pass the time between my departure and graduate school, I started "The Bonnie Fly" on Etsy and continued my sketching. I named it after my wife, who supported my decision and loved me through even the lowest points. During the days of waiting, I was able to wake up each morning excited for the day ahead. Every new idea and sketch brought nearly the same rewarding feeling as catching a great fish. It started off with a few prints and gradually began to gain traction on social media.
The same skills that drove me as a medical student started reemerging. I translated the hours in the morning dedicated to patient cases and journal reviews to studying marketing, business, and how to adapt my skills digitally. For two hours a day, I focused on lectures by industry leaders, and ended with client work and customer service. My passion was discovered, and the effort it took to maintain it was driven effortlessly by my love for fishing. Eventually, the decision was made to fully commit to the life of a free-lance artist and illustrator and I canceled my enrollment into the University of Pittsburgh.
Medicine will always be a part of me. Between trying to understand the situation of patient and listening to the needs of a client, there are few differences. Efficiency and time management are still key elements of my life as a small business owner. The hours and attention to detail have hardly changed. For that reason, I will still carry the title of "MD" behind my name. It reminds me of how I arrived at this point and the humbling experience of being knocked down only to get up and choose a different direction.
I guess it could be easy to be angry. There were so many points where I could have avoided this outcome. But, I am thankful. I have told many people since last winter that Lyme Disease was a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to step back and appreciate how important and precious time is and the value of every interaction shared with others. Instead of despising the hours of my week in a clinical setting and living for the weekend, I was given the opportunity to relentlessly pursue my love for the outdoors and create anything that comes across my thoughts. For that reason, I will never wish for things to have been different. Each experience in our lives molds our personality for better or for worse. How we choose to react to those events largely shapes the outcomes that follow. Medicine and science changed my approach to every aspect of my life and taught me the value of humility and understanding. My wife, family, and friends showed me the importance of love. My artwork is simply a reflection of the journey.