The Road Less Traveled: Daily Prompt

The day’s mail dumped through the slot in the steel door of my nineteenth-floor apartment on the corner of 47th and Lake Park.  South Side Chicago, bad neighborhood, but somehow this award-winning architectural wonder had been built there, and because of its location in the slums, it had been designated as HUD housing (Housing and Urban Development), which meant that a starving premedical student like me could manage the rent.  OK, sometimes I had to hock something, or take on an extra shift cocktail-waitressing at the glitzy downtown disco where I made my tuition money, but somehow I always got the rent money together in time.

I picked up the mail and flipped through it nervously.  I had applied to five medical schools, and the acceptance (optimist) letters, or rejection (pessimist) letters, were beginning to come in.  I knew where I wanted to go, and I knew where I could afford to go; and those were not necessarily the same places.  But I had not applied anywhere I would not be happy to be, so it all boiled down to finances.

There it was.  A catch in my throat: I couldn’t get my breath.  A thin envelope meant rejection; a fat one meant acceptance, because it was full of forms to fill out and return.  Here it was: a fat envelope from the University of Illinois, one of my top choices, and affordable, as it was a state school.  I ripped open the envelope and read breathlessly:

“Dear Ms. So-And-So:

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the University of Illinois College of Medicine…..”

My eyes skimmed the letter.  At the very bottom, as if by an afterthought, I read:

“Due to your excellent academic performance and related experience, we are pleased to offer you a full scholarship.”

I nearly fainted.  My heart pounded as if it wanted to leap out of my chest.

There was a knock at the door.  I grimaced.  Who could this possibly be, interrupting my moment of orgasmic bliss?  I stomped over to the door irritably.

“Who is it?”

Giggles in the hall.

“It’s us!  Let us in!”  It was the Bosom Buddies.

The Bosom Buddies were an all-woman old-time string band from East Lansing, Michigan, an easy train ride from Chicago.  I was one of the two banjo players in the group, and we played fairly regularly.  We played for square dances and Moose Lodge spaghetti dinners and old-time festivals and dinners-on-the-grounds, and we always had a blast.  But what were they doing at my door unannounced?

“We had to come see you, and tell you the news,” said Susie the fiddler breathlessly.  “We had to come in person, so you couldn’t say no.”

Uh-oh.  Sweat started rolling down my ribcage.  What the hell could be so important that they had to take the train down from East Lansing, taking a chance that I might or might not be home?  And not say no?

“Prairie Home Companion has asked us to be their house band!” Susie squealed.

“Wow, that’s fantastic!” I hugged them all.  “Congratulations!”

But why the fuck were they standing on my doorstep telling me this news?

“And,” panted Susie, “Mary (their regular banjo player) went and ran off with Sally (her lover), and formed a duo, and now we don’t have a banjo player, so we want you to join us and come out to Minneapolis!  Will you come?”

My life flashed before my eyes.

This was more than I could have imagined in my wildest dreams.  To be the banjoist in the house band on Prairie Home Companion, the famous National Public Radio show hosted by Garrison Keeler!  Fame and fortune!  Respectability!  Getting to actually play the banjo for a living, instead of just for fun and a few bucks here and there!  Not only that, playing with the Buddies, my favorite people in the whole world!

Then I looked at what was in my hand.  The fat envelope.  My acceptance letter to medical school, and a full-ride scholarship.  I sat down on the floor and cried.

Four women sat down with me, hugging me and asking what was wrong.  I cried harder.  How could I possibly make a decision like this?  Each of these things was the fulfillment of a dream of many years.  I knew I was one of the top old-time banjoists in the country.  And I knew I was destined to be a physician.  Healing was in my bones.  And so was old-time music.

I remembered my manners and invited them in.  They had brought their instruments, so I got out the banjo and a fifth of whiskey and we had a few tunes and got all likkered up, and then I broke the news.  I couldn’t go with them.  My path in life lead elsewhere.  We all cried.

They left, crestfallen, and I spent the rest of the night bawling.  I didn’t know whether I had made the right decision or not.  It just kept bouncing back and forth in my head, and my heart felt like it was being physically torn apart.

The Buddies didn’t find another woman banjo player who was up to their standards, so they didn’t take the job in Minneapolis.  Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band became the Prairie Home Companion house band, and they do a real good job of it, but they’re not the Buddies.

We all went in different directions after that.  A couple of the girls joined other bands.  Susie hitchhiked across the Sahara desert and got a ride with an Irishman on a motorcycle, and they got married and moved to Ireland.

I went on to medical school, and then graduate school in Anthropology, and then a residency in Pediatrics.  I don’t regret my decision, but every now and then I look back to the road less traveled by and think: what would have happened if……

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  1. wow! so much luck ends up being so painful. that must have been a hard decision. we all have those ‘crossroads’ choices every so often, and some days, it is interesting to wonder ‘what if’.

    • Yeah….sometimes I fantasize about still playing on the PHC stage, thirty years later, just like Guy’s All Stars….and then I realize that I was an untreated bipolar coke whore at the time, and going to med school I had to straighten out, and did. If I had stayed in the entertainment biz, what would have happened to me? Would I have been able to hack it, or would I have spun out? I think about that often.

  2. That choice is enough to drive one nutso. While you wouldn’t have the memories of broken children, you also wouldn’t have helped so many kids. But music is forever–can you play now and find a couple of others? Perhaps you then will get your silver lining….

    • Oh, I’ve done my share of playing over the years. Even have a CD out that’s done pretty well but it was that exact configuration, the Buddies and PHC, converging on the very same not only day, but MOMENT, that blew me out of the water. I have no regrets, just nostalgia and “what if’s.” I know I made the right decision.

      • Your post on residency was so horrible sounding. And hit a cord with me as I watched residents deal with verbal (and physical from extreme fatigue) abuse at the Hospital of the University of Penn. I was so disgusted with it. Professionals should never act that way with other professionals. Some of them couldn’t do it, and after all that schooling, left. That will haunt them forever. Most of the others were walking zombies, so exhausted that they would often take it out on me (the baby of the unit as I was 22 and looked 16). I understood, but I just couldn’t believe that laws allowed for this. ive talked to one resident recently and he is still bitter about it 20 years later. You are an amazing person to feel like it was worth it, especially with what you saw in form of child abuse.

        • It’s a hazing ritual, no more, no less. Older doctors used to tell me, if I said anything about it, “Well, WE went through it and it made us what we are. You need to learn to do this stuff IN YOUR SLEEP!” Well. I’ll write more about THAT subject soon. I’m sorry you got the fallout, being the “baby” and all. There’s no excuse for that either. Usually it was the other way around, because the nurses knew that they could tyrannize us, and if we complained we would be instantly written up and punished. More about that later too. But then there was the occasional nurse that I bonded with, (one that I can think of), who did what nurses do best and made me feel better!

          • Working at an Ivy league hospital was difficult. These brilliant minds, who thought they were the best of the best, looked down on nurses in general. But they were under so much stress with the “big boy” club and with each other, for they were competing for the best fellowships and the best jobs as well as survival. Do you think you would have been better under the new quidelines? All I know is–I would not have made it under those conditions! And no one should have to be bitter from abuse doled out while learning their craft!

            • Oh, you were at Hopkins, weren’t you? And still are, right? Yeah Hopkins was the “cream of the crop, most elite.” We didn’t even want to go there (my ex-husband and I)–too much “snob appeal” from the resident crown. But one thing I learned, and very quickly, is that without good nurses, residents may as well go jump in the ocean.

              The new guidelines came in just after I finished my residency. For the uninitiated, this means they lowered the workweek from 120 hours to 80 hours, and made mandatory 8 hour break between shifts. That translates to: run out the door of the hospital, jump in your car, get home (wherever that is), spend the rest of the 8 hours doing whatever you can do before you have to leave to get back to work again.

              Oh, and writing progress notes is not included in the 80 hours, nor is time spent in morning report and sign-out rounds, which can easily add up to another four hours per day=35 hours per 5-day week, except if you’re on call on the weekend…I think it makes some difference, yes, but it’s still grueling. On the other hand, we’ve both seen plenty of nurses working back-to-back 12’s when needed, and I’m not so sure I’d want either a 36-hour post-call MD or a 24-hour back-to-back RN making life-and-death decisions about me or my loved ones….eek…

              • I am right now at Children’s Mercy Hospital in KC, MO. Call for us is the problem we get into. Work all day, be on call all night, work the next day. And no one is able to pick up our slack as we are a specialty unit. I have had weekends where I was home for less then 4 hours, otherwise I was there. And no where to rest, unless it is a chair of exam table–and I have napped plenty of time on both!

                • You’re one of the pediatric dialysis angels who save countless lives while they await transplant. It’s criminal that they don’t train/hire enough staff to pick up the night shift. There’s really no reason they shouldn’t have a “graveyard” shifter. Even most hospitals now have “hospitalists” who only do the night shift. And at least they’re not making you do rotating shifts! Nothing worse for the body and brain than that. I know what you mean about resting in odd places–before I went to undergrad school I was a hematology tech on the graveyard shift, and if there was a break in the action I would pass out on the granite lab bench!

                  • HAHA, nice to have someone to understand! Ive slept everywhere. Sometimes ICU would feel sorry for me and offer me a bed in an unused room! I finally got so tired of it that I said the way we do call has to change. It wasn’t safe. One person would pull call all week, and work all day. By the end of the week, we all hated the d…pager! Then someone else would do all weekend. Now, thanks to me, each person has a call day and we hired a weekend nurse for day shift. That works fine as long as we are fully staffed, healthy and no one is on vacation. I am back up for those other problems, and I am pulled quite a bit to fill in the holes! I don’t recover as quickly from 18 hours in the ICU as I did when in my 20’s. One of these days they are going to be calling a code on ME!


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