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Following My Gut

Though others tried to dissuade me, my mentor’s encouragement gave me the confidence to pursue my dream of becoming a surgeon.

Mission—Bobby Eppsteiner gets ready for surgery in Northampton, Mass., Oct. 7, 2021. Photo by Lynn Kimel.

by Bobby Eppsteiner
Northampton, Mass.

There is this moment in movies about classical composers, when the composer-to-be hears an orchestra for the first time and feels a bone-deep calling. At 16, snacking on cherry Jell-O in a hospital recovery room, I experienced just such a calling, but not for music.

I had felt nausea and a stabbing pain in my gut for a day before my parents realized it was more than a stomach bug. At the hospital, we were shown to the office of a surgeon, a gentleman in his late 60s or early 70s, the walls covered with diplomas. More than the credentials, his levelheaded confidence spoke for a lifetime in the trade; after a few questions and a quick blood test, he calmly informed me I had appendicitis and needed urgent surgery.

After the operation, he came to check up on me. Happily, through mouthfuls of Jell-O, I told him I was feeling much better. In fact, I was having a revelation. This man had promptly identified and treated the cause of my suffering. His down-to-earth follow-up told me that this was not a one-off but something he did for people every day. A powerful feeling took hold in my now untroubled gut: I have to do this; I have to become a surgeon!

Just one not-so-little problem: I was no good at science. When I spoke with my guidance counselor about my dream, she quickly discouraged it.

“Your marks are high, Bobby, in both English and history. But your performance in the sciences has been … well … ”

Lackluster was the word she was looking for. She wasn’t alone. Invariably, teachers, advisors and counselors fumbled for the right words to disabuse me of any medical aspirations. I had a hard time mounting a defense; all I had was that feeling from the hospital room, a feeling I couldn’t explain. But I did know one thing: No grade would stop me from pursuing that feeling.

Fortunately, my parents, two serious practitioners of SGI Buddhism, took me seriously. They listened and, whenever I began to doubt my path, pointed me toward Ikeda Sensei’s encouragement. Over time, I found it, the name of my feeling: a sense of mission.

I kept Sensei’s encouragement alive in my heart. If your faith is unshakable, my mentor says, you will never be defeated.

When I was 8 years old, before I knew what mission was, I had met Sensei. He had come to the SGI-USA Boston Community Center in September 1991 to speak to the members the day after his first address at Harvard University. We kids gathered on the center steps to welcome him, but we were antsy, and the parents had their hands full.

When Sensei arrived, the whole mood changed. I remember his vibrant smile and the way he acknowledged each person, especially the behind-the-scenes staff. Though he had only a few moments, though we did not speak the same language, he somehow connected with us kids gathered around him, greeting each of us in turn with his eyes. Over the years, this memory of Sensei has come back to me at crucial moments. Reading his guidance, I knew that Sensei believed in me.

Thanks to this, I never gave up and, if anything, picked up speed when I went to college. Not only did I dive headfirst into my studies, but strengthened my Buddhist practice as well. I chanted twice a day in my dormitory, participated in district activities and shared Buddhism through our campus club.

I knew that if I devoted myself to my studies and my faith, I would not fail. Approaching graduation, my grade-point average was stellar. All that remained was the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT. I discussed my score with my pre-med advisor, and he was blunt: With my score, no medical school would accept me. He encouraged me to take the test again. I studied longer and harder, took the test a second time and … I did worse! I was so discouraged. But I kept Sensei’s encouragement alive in my heart. If your faith is unshakable, my mentor says, you will never be defeated.

My advisor sang another tune. He told me not to bother applying, that I had zero chance of being accepted. I applied anyway, chanting for just one admissions committee to look beyond the single factor of my test score to see the big picture. I applied to 20 medical schools and received 19 rejections. The day of the deadline, I called the University of Massachusetts, the only school I had not yet heard back from.

An admissions person answered.

“Funny you should call,” she said,

“I just sent your letter out—you’re the very last student we accepted.”

Overjoyed, I resolved to make the most of this opportunity. I studied hard and, upon graduation and specialty training became an ear, nose and throat surgeon, my top choice, and joined the medical practice of my choosing.

My current medical practice is just 10 minutes away from UMass-Amherst, where I went to college. I am determined to support an SGI-USA campus club there so that students can connect with the practice and with Sensei, as I did, to overcome any self-doubts arising from within or without. Looking back, I see clearly that Sensei’s guidance was what gave me the courage, time and again, to buck conventional wisdom and follow my gut.

Each of us has a noble mission. When we awaken to that mission, the door to our inner life force is unlocked and immeasurable strength and wisdom well forth.

Ikeda Sensei, The New Human Revolution, vol. 14, revised edition, p. 81

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