Life's Detour for Mechanic Turned Surgeon

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media , September 13, 2012
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This article appears in the September 2012 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

For Robert Oakes, MD, the career path to cardiothoracic surgery was not along traditional lines. The Lincoln, Neb., surgeon was born the son of an auto mechanic and a field worker. A perennial D student, Oakes flunked out of high school in his senior year and began to work on cars to help his father, who was coping with chronic health issues. Oakes, now 40, eventually finished high school and Harvard Medical School—but early on, he envisioned a life under the hood of car, and felt that would not satisfy his desire to help people.

The primary caretaker: My parents had separated when I was in fifth grade. I moved to Yuma, Ariz., with my dad and grew up with him. He was always in poor health, and I felt I was his primary caretaker when I was growing up. Through that I have a lot of exposure and a lot of early involvement in decision-making for taking care of people. That solidified for me that I really wanted to care for people and that medicine was what I wanted to do.

The craftsman: People joke about the similarities between cardiothoracic surgery and auto mechanics and "parts is parts" and stuff like that. But it is true that being a car mechanic, growing up the son of a car mechanic, you are in a craftsman's field. You work with your hands and you create stuff and you fix things, and a lot of how you judge yourself as a person is dependent upon the quality of the job you do and your pride in craftsmanship.

Finding the path: I remember when I was a kid, even by junior high you feel like there was a group of kids who are slotted to go to college. They are taking higher math classes, whatever. You miss that boat and it's not for you. A lot of it has to start early in redefining our expectations of what kids can do. Seeing stories like mine shows that you're never too late to get started. When I was thinking about it, I was going to spend a lifetime fixing people's cars, changing their oil, and at the end of that life, what was the summation of what I contributed to the world? I didn't like it. I wanted to do something to help people.     

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This article appears in the September 2012 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

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John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.




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