My Journey From Surgeon To Wildlife Photographer (Excerpt from the upcoming book The Musings Of A 21st Century Homo sapien)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away

Medium is such a great place to read inspirational writings and obtain advice on a multitude of topics. There is no shortage of “how to” articles and diverging opinions on just what to do in order to be successful.

But you know what? I just don’t think it is a straight shot for the vast majority of us. I think a lot of times we compare ourselves to what we “ought” to be doing, according to other “experts”, when really, there is so much about the journey that we’d be better off enjoying. We strive to get somewhere, rather than just be where we are. Please don’t misunderstand — I’m not dissing goals. I’m just saying it’s okay to take a crooked and winding path home, and the journey is probably just what it is supposed to be.

Mine has been a road less traveled, and when all is said and done, I wouldn’t change a thing, though I admit there are not many people who claim to understand my choices, because most of the time, my choices are not geared towards achieving a higher income or social status. But let’s not jump ahead. Let’s return to the Atchafalaya basin, where the cypress of my soul takes root.

I was born Jennifer Anne Hamner to a couple from Louisiana. My mother is from the Baton Rouge area. According to her, my father was from “too far North” — Shreveport, Louisiana, where I happened to be born. According to her philosophies, that damn near made me a Yankee from the get-go — a long-standing family joke.

As I look back on my college years, it is stunning to consider now how young and inexperienced we typically are at that age, and yet we make major, life-altering decisions about where to invest our time and money for education and training.

All of my life, I’d had a deep love for animals that my mother very much nurtured. I could probably fill a book about this topic and the empathy and connection I felt with them. My first love was marine biology, and specifically marine mammology. For so many years, my grandparents and parents indulged me in this, taking me to see marine mammals and helping me visit colleges that had programs in marine biology.

But when it was time to make a choice, they had conversations with me about money, something I didn’t understand then as well as I do now. I recall my father many a time explaining how I’d have a PhD and only make “$18,000” annually — about the going rate at the time in that field. I didn’t care. It was my love. My passion. And I wanted to pursue it.

As college ended and my parents and I saw eye-to-eye less and less regarding what I might do for a living, a few things happened. I did become frightened of not being able to pay my bills, and I felt guilt. Guilt? As a deeply spiritual person, for reasons that I really find shameful now, I somehow felt that I should give some of my time and future expertise to humans.

Basically, I got frightened away from my passion because I didn’t know enough to know better. I had an immediate choice to go to dental school in New Orleans or to podiatry school in New York City. If I wanted to go into internal medicine or an off-shoot, I’d have to wait a year to apply, because I’d already waited too long. And frankly, I didn’t come from a family that stopped schooling, or anything. I really didn’t know how to quit, or even pause, something.

New Orleans, as much as I loved it, seemed like more of the same, because it wouldn’t get me away to see any of the world. I was already very familiar with New Orleans. But New York City? Ah…now that was exciting. So, I opted to go into podiatric medicine, as an alternative — something that would provide me a way to pay the extensive list of bills my father had outlined for me on a yellow pad one day when he explained to me the family budget.

Ironically, my third year of surgical training I was salaried at guess what? $18,000. But that’s okay. I was a happy gal, as you might guess from the pictures of me. I’d always been an artist and had very steady hands. Thank goodness for video games that made for great hand-eye coordination in ankle arthroscopy.

Taking a deformed foot or ankle and reconstructing it to function as optimally as possible was something I loved. I felt a deep sense of satisfaction when post-op radiographs came out the way I intended. That was art to me — I loved being able to line up the bones, fixate them, and clean up the joints to help patients be as pain-free as possible. And I very much loved patient interaction.

During residency I’d always planned to work on a Native American reservation. I remember a day during a surgery when the attending asked all of us what our plans were. Everyone had a big city or a clinic waiting for them. But I said Montana, or Alaska, or somewhere on a rez.

I didn’t realize at the time that the jobs were exceedingly hard to get because people who had no intention of staying on the rez, wanted the jobs to pay off student loan debt. I allowed myself to become a bit discouraged with it when a tribe in Montana selected me as their podiatrist, and someone “already in the system” decided to transfer at the last minute. This over-ruled the tribal choice and made me wonder if I’d ever be able to do what I’d set out to do. It also taught me about the complete injustice of lack of autonomy that many tribal nations experienced. So, needing to do something while continuing to seek a position on a reservation, I wound up in a town in Arkansas where my family resided and set up shop working in close partnership with a hospital.

But after a few years, my best friend was killed in a tragic accident. That abruptly plunged me face-to-face with reality and the concept of finality. I rather immediately pulled myself up and asked myself what I wanted to do for the rest of any life I had.

I’d been working 5 clinics, doing surgeries, and fighting with insurance companies to get paid for my work. Strapped with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and massive overhead for a new practice, it was hard to justify continuing the misery of spending my days mostly doing paperwork and covering my ass with mountains of dictation and phone calls. Besides, I understood enough about money at that point to see the bottom line. And the bottom line was that no matter how much my income was, most of it went to pay student loans and taxes, and there was no way anyone would finance me for a home, even with outstanding credit. While I had been in school and residency, medicine had changed dramatically, and I’d gotten caught in the quagmire in which we as a country still writhe.

So, I took a year off, moved to the beach, did tons of artwork, and sold some of it. But eventually, I decided I had to do something, and I returned to medicine in a different capacity. I’d always loved the research laboratory in college, so I went into clinical laboratory sciences. That way, I could just take a guaranteed salary and benefits, and go home at the end of the day and easily turn off the job. I’d hoped it would be far less stressful than working as a podiatric physician in such a litigious society, where malpractice premiums were skyrocketing, pitting doctors and patients in a cautious, stand-offish relationship with each other. I had ethical qualms with the entire healthcare delivery system, and I felt like insurance companies were demanding that I either cut quality or pay for the quality I wanted to give my patients, out of my pocket. Considering my already massive debt, I knew I couldn’t take that route, so I found a compromise — a way to give back to humanity, but not take actions that I believed were unethical.

Guess what? My venture into the clinical laboratory brought me all kinds of opportunities! I wound up working as a project manager in healthcare data, and also as a data consultant for yet another company. Additionally, on the side, I worked exclusively with Native Americans and home-bound individuals as a podiatrist. For five years I was the podiatrist for the Alabama-Coushatta tribe of Texas, until one day I ventured to the Navajo reservation in the clinical microbiology laboratory.

Where the bacteria are my friends and companions
Window Rock, Arizona — Capital of The Navajo Nation

And no matter where I was, I was always an artist and an amateur photographer. Even in the laboratory, I couldn’t refrain from painting, even with gram stain ink spots in a sink.

Of all the places I resided, I found that I seemed to always thrive in Florida. I attribute that to my Atchafalaya genes. I’m comfortable here because of the cypress trees, the oak canopies, the Spanish moss, and most importantly, the alligators. I used to kayak up and down rivers 10 years ago and had no way to share the fruits of my passion, except disk and laborious emails to only a few people.

Technology has changed all of that to my great advantage. I’ve had time to hone my skills when I couldn’t share broadly, and now with the boom of social media, I have numerous platforms and an audience that literally can reach worldwide. I’ve made connections from around the globe and am gaining opportunities to promote education and awareness of wildlife and natural resources.

Today, I don’t make a living doing wildlife photography. And at this point, I don’t think I’d want to. I wouldn’t want to smother my passion with the stresses of having to produce something in a certain way, by a certain time, or for a certain vendor. I’d learned that hard lesson over 20 years prior. I do it my way, just the way I finally decided to do podiatry.

My father once said he thought I’d missed my calling to work with animals. Of course, that was many years after my journey within human healthcare. But I’m not prone to view life that way. I’m a devout conservationist, environmentalist, and most of all, an advocate for wildlife and our natural resources. I love not just marine mammals, but truly, all animals, and I have a rich abundance of wildlife to shoot photos of in the state of Florida.

I especially love to advocate for and share artistic photography of animals that people often do not appreciate, because they find them frightening, or “ugly” — animals like alligators, my favorite subject.

I’m finding that as I age, I don’t even long to travel much anymore, other than my swamp like areas in Louisiana and Florida — places that feel like home to my soul, surrounded by my brothers and sisters — the gators, the anhingas, the roseate spoonbills, and the great blue herons. Their calls and bellows strike a primal chord within me, and let me know without a doubt, that I followed exactly the perfect path to the road home.

I was always happy, and as I look back on my pictures, I seem to always have had a big smile, and the wrinkles in my half century old face demonstrate evidence of those years of joy.

Me during a break at Tsehootsooi Medical Center — Navajo Nation

During the journey, my spiritual and philosophical studies have included most major religions, including non-theistic traditions, and atheism. I asked G-d, or The Universe, for decades what I was supposed to be doing. As I look back now, I realize that I was being answered all along. The journey was exactly what it was supposed to be, and it continues. When I finally figured it out though…that I’d been answered, I also completed my conversion to Judaism. My Hebrew name “Eliana” means “My G-d has answered me.” The name “Wolf”, while also a Jewish name, is a nod to my totem animal.

I still work in the clinical laboratory, in molecular oncology, and I love my job. Although healthcare in general remains stressful, I don’t think it is something that a different industry would alleviate for me. It’s just life. I’m able to give back to humanity and support my passion. I’m able to return any money made doing wildlife photography directly back towards conservation — not for profit. And I’m doing my best to study the natural world and to help animals, the very thing that was my original passion.

So, if you are someone who constantly reads how you should risk everything and jump right into your passion, and if there isn’t a market for it, you should create one…well…don’t feel bad. I don’t subscribe to the notion that you have to go “all in” at once for your passion. Some of us are born into circumstances that just don’t offer the perfect opportunity. Don’t beat yourself up for not making the seemingly perfect choices at the perfect time. Life isn’t like that. Many people who are wise are only so because of retrospective analysis.

I really believe that if you keep the embers burning, the fire will erupt. And it will erupt when it’s best. Don’t fret if you can’t identify the passion that so many people feel you should know. It will find you. And you may find, just as I did, that you were on the road home all along.

Back home in Florida years later

amateur wildlife & conservation photographer. naturalist. the girl with the alligator tattoo.

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