How My Book Got Its Name

I wondered for a whole year what I was going to title my book, and suddenly, “The Ugly Docling” came to mind. I think it’s fitting on many levels.

For one, the Ugly Duckling is the story of a nerd kid who grows up to be a doctor (or engineer, or astronaut, or member of any profession that draws from the smart kid pool.)

I’ve been a misfit since elementary school. First it was because I was an immigrant, had an odd name, wore different clothes, and didn’t speak the language. But even after I grew accustomed to American culture, I still struggled with being a nerd. I tried so often to dumb myself down so I could be accepted by other kids. I wanted people to know that I was a musician, a poet, and a tennis player, but I would be mortified if anyone found out that I was in MathCounts or Academic Olympics. And though I spent way too much time trying, I never had nice hair. For me, this one was tough; high school is all about the hair.

Fast forward to medical school: Everybody is a smartypants. Everybody is charismatic. Everybody has nice hair. Well, almost. When we tell people that we are going to be doctors, they react with kind words of admiration, appreciation, and respect. (And then they show us skin lesions for diagnosis.) Yet, when I found my old MathCounts roster and pointed out that a couple of my classmates were on it, they were mortified. It really is bittersweet to look back on those years. But hey, let’s face it: doctors don’t just pop out of thin air; they were Mathletes when they were little! Nobody makes fun of a doctor. So why are American kids taught to make fun of nerds? I consider this book to be a big hug for my young self—and for nerd kids everywhere. Nerd kids: It gets better!

But my personal Ugly Duckling story continued even after I met up with the other swans in medical school.

Perhaps because of our common unspoken background as nerds, the culture in medical school is reversed. We admire and compliment each other for knowing the right answer at the right time. We fear being laughed at when we act ignorant or incompetent. Some may brag about how they never study, but they are either lying or willfully endangering lives and mocking the practice of medicine, and the rest of us know in our hearts that we would never refer our own patients to those individuals.

It was in this culture that I realized I may still be a misfit. Yes, of course I have studied my tail off, and of course I want other students to think of me as being a stellar student. But to the degree that I still have gaps in my knowledge, I question my doctoring skills. When I get an answer wrong, I question if all my classmates are smarter than me, if I can be a good doctor, if other doctors will want to refer their patients to me. For the first couple of years, I focused so much on test scores as measures of my doctoring skills. But then, when the exams were over and I was thrown into the real world of hospitals and clinics, I was humbled to learn so many things that were never taught in the medical classroom. These are the things that I felt moved to write about.