As reported by the Hartford Business Journal, October 8, 2007.

A Doogie Howser Start to an Ambitious Medical Career

By Laura Schreier

Most hospital patients hope to be placed in the care of a mature, businesslike physician and a squad of capable, sympathetic nurses. They likely don’t hope to get an IV or catheter put in by a kid who looks like he just came from gym class.

But in the 1950s, Dr. Peter J. Deckers was a teenager who daily did just that. He put in stomach tubes, dressed wounds, changed bandages, fed and washed patients, dealt with families of deceased patients, did laboratory work, and plenty more tasks around the hospital in western Massachusetts. He started when he was just 15 — the typical age of a present-day sophomore in high school.

“At that time they allowed people like me to do things they wouldn’t allow you to do today,” said Deckers, now the dean of the University of Connecticut’s School of Medicine. “It was a wonderful job, and I’ve often kidded people by saying it was the best job I ever had.”

It was a hands-on introductory course in medicine, but it wasn’t just about learning the processes and techniques involved in medicine; it was an invaluable lesson in how to be attentive to patients and their families.

It also provided a huge boost for someone with med-school ambitions: “When I went off to college and medical school, I was way ahead of the game in what I knew.”

Deckers was young for the job, but his age was less noticeable in that era, when kids got an earlier jump on their academic careers. Without preschool or daycare readily available, he said, parents often put their kids into kindergarten at age 4, and students like him were in college by age 17 and in medical school by age 21.

“The concept of taking a year or two off to see what you were going to do with your life just didn’t exist. No one did that,” he said.

If working in the hospital was the first real step into his medical career, he’d been laying the groundwork even earlier by hobnobbing with local doctors in their natural habitat: the country club. At around age 10, Deckers got a job as a golf course caddie, hauling bags around for $2 per 18 holes, plus a 50-cent tip. Deckers didn’t grow up to be an avid golfer himself, but the job had put him in contact with many local doctors who eventually became his advocates, writing letters of recommendation that gave young Deckers a leg up in his burgeoning career.

A similar principle applied to Deckers’ job during medical school. As an employee of the records room at the Boston city hospital, he’d spend time retrieving records for physicians, getting to know them in the process. It put him in contact with physicians in training, faculty members doing research — he got to interact with a variety of people.

But not every job involved medicine: In college, Deckers had a job mixing and hauling plaster for residences. It didn’t exactly aid in Deckers’ medical career, but it paid more than his high school job as an orderly and demanded fewer hours.

That, however, was only a brief break in an otherwise uninterrupted career. Deckers graduated at age 25, in 1966, and went on to eight years of graduate medical education before working in medical academia in Boston, Hartford Hospital and the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. Although he’s an academic, Deckers still sees about 100 patients a month, putting into action a bedside manner honed when he was a teenager.