She still calls me, even though it is a long-distance call from Jamaica. She feels much better after a lifetime of unexplained feelings of panic, racing heart and sweating. The former nurse I helped care for at Jacobi on my third-year medicine rotation had finally been diagnosed and treated for a pheochromocytoma (a tumor of the adrenal gland that secretes epinephrine—the “fight or flight” hormone). She periodically leaves endearing messages to tell me she is praying for me and how thankful she is for my team’s help.
Like her, I feel lucky. Not in a four-leaf-clover, lottery-ticket kind of way, but fortunate for all the amazing experiences I’ve been able to have so far. On my nightstand I have a black-and-white marbled composition book—my Book of Gratefulness. Watching a TED talk by Shawn Achor one day (The Happy Secret to Better Work), I learned how recording one positive experience a day in a journal helps your brain relive it for 24 hours, so I started doing this. His research shows that when people write down three new things for which they’re grateful for 21 days in a row, their brains start to retain a pattern of scanning the world not for the negative, but for the positive first.
Growing up in a small town in rural Louisiana, I never dreamed I’d have the chance to fly airplanes, reach nine Gs in a centrifuge, go to medical school or design cars, loading equipment and airplanes. I just knew I was curious about the world.
To pay for college, I took an ROTC scholarship and worked. Upon finishing, I served as an Air Force officer, overseeing the design of cargo planes and manufacturing software. I was fortunate to be able to attend Stanford for an M.S. in engineering and then to design steering systems at Ford.
A family experience with several extended stays in the hospital catalyzed my decision to leave engineering and pursue medicine. When faced with the up-close-and-personal reality of a critical condition, I realized I needed additional training and hoped I could make a difference for others. Looking at medical schools, I valued Einstein’s commitment to a varied student body. When giving applicant tours, I was proud to say we had an Olympic athlete, a TV producer and a ballet dancer in recent classes, as I felt it provided a much richer experience.
Both engineering and medicine require a disciplined, methodical thought process to debug or diagnose what is going on, a systematic approach to make sure you don’t miss anything and lifelong learning to keep up with the latest findings. The biggest and most rewarding difference is the possibility of having a positive impact on the life of another person and his or her family. Having worked on many teams and with people of many backgrounds in engineering and the Air Force has proved a great asset in relating to patients. I recognize the huge privilege we are given when we are invited to learn the intimate details of people’s lives in order to be able to provide care.
Lean on Me
With little background in the biological sciences, I definitely had to work hard during my medical school experience, and faced some challenges. I would say I took some major gut shots during this journey. Certainly it helped to have that marbled notebook to refer to as I picked myself off the rocks more than a few times. Looking back, I see that a major factor was all the strong support I received from my friends, mentors, the administration and all those Chinstagrams, the regular emails from Christina Chin, director of the office of student affairs that kept us on track. I can’t begin to express the gratitude I feel for these friends. I am happy to say I’ve been able to return the favor multiple times, both for those applying to medical school and for those in school who have hit a snag. When mentoring students applying to medical school, I often advise them to take a histology course if possible to make it easier.
No “What If”s
One message I have for people who sometimes share with me a secret goal they always wished they’d pursued is to take the risk. While trying something new may present barriers and challenges, with determination and hard work, amazing things can happen. Knowing there is limited time helps us set priorities.
Like others, I’ve experienced personal loss, which helps me walk more knowingly in others’ shoes. My mom died just as I was entering medical school. Two close friends succumbed to cancer. Two days before the Disease Mechanisms exam, my brother passed away and I flew to Houston to go through his belongings, which was gut-wrenching. The day of the Step 1 Mock exam, I was called to the hospital for a family member who was critically ill and then spent six weeks in the hospital with him—postponing my first clerkship rotation. These experiences have helped me try to be more fully present and to realize that we get only so many heartbeats. I choose to make every single one count. Even when times were tough, I still found something to write about—no matter how tersely—in my journal.
A few weeks before Match Day, I was at the self-checkout at the grocery store when I heard something that sounded like “Hey, doc!” Looking around, I asked the man behind me what he had said. He replied, “Well, I thought you look like a doctor. Aren’t you one?” This was about 70 miles from the nearest medical school and I was wearing regular clothes and no badge. I figured it was a positive sign. To those pursuing their goals—be tenacious. And best wishes to all my classmates on the next step in their journeys. I can’t wait to retire my “almost-a-doctor” T-shirt!