The radiograph results weren’t surprising given the S-shaped deformity of the boy’s forearm. I sat by his stretcher in the pediatric emergency department, showing him and his mother the picture, explaining that the bones were broken.
His initial frown turned into a smile as he said with a shrug, “Well, at least I just broke two bones in my body, not all of them!”
This was one of the moments during medical school that convinced me pediatrics was the specialty for me. Even when in pain or scared, children can offer a fresh and hopeful perspective. So often children take life in stride and are full of resilience and humor.
Nearly 10 years later, I’ve never regretted specializing in pediatrics. I am grateful for the varied experiences, thoughtful mentors and amazing children who helped me along the path to becoming a pediatrician.
Why Choose Pediatrics?
Choosing a specialty is one of a medical student’s most important decisions. If you’re thinking, “Why should I be a pediatrician?” here are some advantages you may not have thought of.
Prevention Is the Heart of Pediatrics
Pediatricians love that they get patients young enough to prevent later dramas. We vaccinate to keep children from the ravages of meningitis, polio and tetanus, and we screen for developmental delays and facilitate Early Intervention services if we find them. We emphasize safe sleep practices so no parents ever wake up to find that the worst has happened.
We counsel regarding bike helmets, trampoline safety and seat belt use to protect kids from head injuries and broken bones. We encourage healthy eating and physical activity to attempt to prevent future diabetes and heart attacks. We give our patients books at their visits to foster a love of reading and school readiness. If you love catching things early when there’s still plenty of time to intervene, the preventive mission of pediatrics may be right for you.
Pediatrics Is Full of Variety
Our patients range from squirming newborns to young adults heading off to college. That also comes with a challenge: We must change our communication to fit each child’s particular developmental stage.
However, the variety keeps things interesting. We get to watch patients grow and change, and caring for children at every age and stage keeps our days fresh. We treat acute problems such as asthma attacks, fractures and seizures as well as chronic issues such as ADHD, headaches and functional constipation. We practice in a variety of settings, from pediatrics inpatient services to primary care, pediatric subspecialty clinics, newborn nurseries and neonatal intensive care units. Each child we meet is unique and is surrounded by a particular family and social structure that affects their health. This keeps you on your toes.
We Handle Tough Challenges
Pediatricians are lucky enough to treat children who are generally quite healthy. When they fall ill, it’s often a single or straightforward problem. Children heal remarkably well and are incredibly resilient.
Yet when our patients fall ill with serious or rare diseases, the medicine is complex, the therapies ever-evolving and the tragedy unparalleled. There’s little that’s harder than seeing a life cut short. This is when we must rely on our own resilience and support our patients’ families through incredible challenges.
We Practice With Creativity and Humor
We pediatricians may be stereotyped as full of smiles, silliness and stickers, yet these are strategic tools. A goofy dance, light-up toy or silly voice helps our patients feel at ease with exams, distracts them from uncomfortable moments and allows us to assess their development. We use our creativity to ease suffering by singing a favorite song while suturing a laceration or doing our musculoskeletal exam by playing hopscotch together. When we can elicit grins and giggles from children, our days are more joyful.
Patience is needed as well. It’s an important quality to have when attempting to get an accurate abdominal exam on a wiggly infant or building the trust that’s necessary for our teen patients to share their drug use with us.
How to Explore Pediatrics
If you feel that specializing in pediatrics is right for you, here are ways to learn more, gain experience and bolster your residency application.
Get to Know Children
Your rotations will provide contact with many children, but it’s important to seize opportunities to spend time with them outside the hospital. Babysitting or part-time nannying can provide some supplemental learning and practical experience while also helping to pay your tuition.
Many medical schools offer volunteer programs through which you can teach health at local schools or mentor at-risk youth. You can also spend a few hours a week snuggling babies in the NICU. If you’re lucky enough to have nieces, nephews or friends with children (or even already have your own children), play with them. Figure out how best to reach them, what calms them and what makes them laugh.
Learn From Patients and Their Families
Children experiencing illness are surprisingly wise and perceptive. Ask them about their experiences living with chronic illness, staying in the hospital or having a procedure, and ask them how their care could be better. Ask them what is most important to them.
Talk similarly with their parents and loved ones. A child’s illness and healing are experienced by their entire circle of care, and these insights will make your practice more thoughtful.
Choose a Variety of Pediatric Rotations
While rotations in general pediatrics, PICU, NICU and nursery are key, remember that other fields also care for children. Consider rotations in pediatric psychiatry, sports medicine, family medicine and surgical subspecialties that see children, such as otolaryngology, ophthalmology or orthopedics. Participate in research that impacts children, whether it’s bench science that’s working on new pediatric cancer targets, evaluating a community obesity prevention program or trying to figure out how to improve local immunization rates.
Find a Pediatric Mentor
Pediatricians love teaching. Find one whose working style and expertise you admire, and ask them to guide you. Learn their clinical pearls and practical tricks, and ask for their guidance when selecting your residency programs.
Also spend time with others who work with pediatric patients such as nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, social workers and particularly child life specialists. Those of us who care for children are always eager to welcome another into our fold.