The Moment I Knew I Wanted to Be a Physician

June 1, 2010

Surgeon Robert L. Horner planned to see the country as a railroad engineer until a watershed moment in a pool hall in Wyoming convinced him to change tracks.


When I was 8 years old, I would ride my bicycle down to the Taylor Yards of the Southern Pacific Railroad on the northwestern edge of Los Angeles and watch the steam engines switching the freight cars. I saw the Daylight Streamliner speeding up toward San Francisco and I knew I wanted to be a railroad engineer. I spent all of the time I could riding on trains and studying engines. The 1940s was a great time to see railroads in action. Then in 1943, I got a job working on a track gang laying rails and tamping the ties. It was hard work but I was out on the line, waving at the engineers and daydreaming about when I would be in the engine, controlling a powerful living machine.

At one point, I was out on the Mojave Desert hitchhiking from California to Colorado. Rides were hard to come by. The Second World War was still going on and there weren’t many private cars going between the towns of the western states. It seemed that it would be faster to get on a freight train. So another hitchhiker and I jumped onto an empty “gondola.”

It was dark, wet, and cold as the train pulled into Rawlins, Wyo. I had been riding east in an open car that trailed a Union Pacific coal-burning helper engine, and found myself covered with soot. Filthy and shivering, I went into the washroom of a pool hall across the street from the railroad yard and tried to wash with cold water and toilet paper; there was no soap. My face was streaked like a zebra, my eyes were bloodshot, and I was tired and hungry. I was 16 years old. “Is this really the life that I want?” I asked myself.

My family had been encouraging me to study medicine like my uncle, a physician, but that idea had seemed too “sterile” and regimented. When I noticed that Uncle Howard had to wear a tie and be indoors all day, I thought that life as a railroader would be more to my liking. But my miserable soot-covered appearance convinced me: I want to be a doctor. Being indoors sounded good after all.

This was a turning point. I came home and applied myself to my studies and was able to graduate from high school before my 17th birthday. The war was soon over, and I had to compete with returning veterans for a place in a medical school class.

When I finished my residency training I hoped to be a “railroad surgeon” and have a pass so I could ride on trains whenever I wanted. I did make the list of approved orthopedists for the Union Pacific and Rio Grande railroads - but the passenger trains were being taken out of service and there was no such position as railroad surgeon. So there were no passes.

Soon I realized that I was earning enough money that I could buy my own train fare, and my wife and I have had the pleasure of riding trains in 25 countries, including Switzerland, Japan, England, France, and Spain. There has been some pretty basic railroad travel in Kenya and over the Andes in Ecuador and out of Cuzco in Peru. We have been on the train to the famed River Kwai in Thailand, and I have been with the engineer in the cab of the engine pulling the Trans-Alpin Express over the mountains of the South Island of New Zealand. We have also been on some luxury trains, including the “Bullet Trains” in Japan and the “Inter City” trains in Europe. We rode with our grandson Mitchell through the “Chunnel” between London and Belgium. A highlight was when we took the dome car of the Rocky Mountaineer over the Canadian Rockies between Banff and Vancouver.

I still watch the trains go by. Every month I take the Pacific Surfliner up the California coast to go to offices where I evaluate injured workers. I sometimes speak to the engineers. Even if they’re enclosed in air-conditioned or heated cabs, I do not envy them. I am glad that my decision to be a physician has given me an opportunity to travel and buy my own ticket.

Medicine has opened doors for me to be of special service in Africa, Latin America, and especially Puerto Rico. I have seen more of the world as a physician than I ever would have being a railroad engineer - and my face has stayed a lot cleaner. I know now that I made the right decision when I was looking at the streaks in the mirror more than 60 years ago. I am thankful for those who helped me when I decided: I want to be a physician.

Robert L. Horner, MD, was born in Glendale, California in 1928. He graduated from the School of Medicine at Loma Linda University, and did his orthopedic residency at UCLA. He was a surgeon for the Crippled Children’s Bureau in Puerto Rico for six years, and then practiced hand surgery in Denver for 30 years. He now does Agreed and Qualified Medical Evaluations of injured workers in several areas of California. Physicians Practice.

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of