Biography: Kelly is a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania.
Disclosures: Kelly reports no relevant financial disclosures.
July 22, 2021
2 min read

BLOG: Reflect on what called you to a medical vocation

Biography: Kelly is a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania.
Disclosures: Kelly reports no relevant financial disclosures.
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As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on, most of us have felt the emotional effects of social distancing, the demands of mask wear, incessant hand washing and the omnipresent fear of contracting the illness or, worse yet, transmitting it to a friend or loved one.

Like any other challenging time, it is critically important to return to the fundamentals and practice life and energy sustaining habits and perspectives. In trying times like these and with the uncertainties that loom ahead, I do my best to focus on my vocation, not profession. The brilliant psychologist Victor Frankl, MD, PhD, in his classic work Man’s Search for Meaning, clearly states that if we can find a “why” we do something, the “how” will surely follow.

The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled me to pause and reflect why I went to medical school. Like most readers, I felt called to serve. A calling is indeed the essence of the vocation. In fact, the word vocation is derived from the Latin word vocere, which means “to call.”

Time to reflect

Take some time and reflect: What called you to a medical vocation? Chances are it was not power, prestige or money. While many of these things hold some importance, they will not sustain you. Because most of us answered the call to improve the health of others, we must uphold this value if we are to enjoy the journey. Frankl said meaning is the primary motivational force in mankind and that the meaning of life lies in finding a purpose and taking responsibility for ourselves and other human beings. When we direct our attention and energies to the service of others, not only are we engaged in the present moment, but our own personal “stuff” vanquishes.

Frankl’s famous quote may sustain you during the most trying of clinic days. “If you find a why, then you can bear anyhow.”

A focus on the calling as a shield against burnout is born out in science. A survey of 2,263 physicians demonstrated that burnout was inversely proportional to how the doctors perceived meaning or a service orientation to their work. We will never starve nor go hungry. We will all have a roof over our heads and ensure our families are comfortable.

Meaningful vocation

We are engaged in the most meaningful of vocations. The ability to enable others to walk, use their extremities and remain active is a solemn and profound privilege. The life of an orthopedic surgeon is overflowing with meaning that no pandemic can ever undermine.

Consider this. While in surgery, reflect on how much good you are doing and how much you are truly benefitting your patients. In clinic, consider that most patients are seeing you to help with pain or significant dysfunction. Reflect on this profound privilege. What we do with our hands will change the lives of our patients forever.


Frankl VE. Man's search for meaning. Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Jager AJ, et al. Mayo Clin Proc. 2017;doi:10.1016/j.mayocp.2016.11.012.

Yoon JD, et al. Acad Psychiatry. 2017;doi:10.1007/s40596-016-0487-1.