Donald Egan

Donald did not let his cerebral palsy impede him from pursuing his goal of becoming a physician. He hopes to encourage others who may not fit the standard “mold” of a medical student to follow their dreams.
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Undergraduate university and year of graduation: The University of Texas at Austin, 2017
Major: Biochemistry and Anthropology 
Medical school and expected year of graduation: UT Health San Antonio Long School of Medicine, 2021
Residency Training Program: Psychiatry 
Fellowship: Addiction Psychiatry

 

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

An actor; I always loved performing on stage and assuming different characters. The practice of studying characters has helped me to understand human actions and intentions. Even now, I find myself “assuming different roles” for patients. Some patients respond more to stern logic while others respond to more emotional arguments. I find that even now, my experiences in acting have helped me to become a better doctor. 

 

What led to your interest in medicine?

I saw many doctors when I was younger for my cerebral palsy (CP), so medicine was always on my radar. From an early age, I developed a curiosity for the human brain and body.  

 

What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?

When I was in college, I loved all of my science courses. I could not get enough of them, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning. I had been told from mentors that a career in medicine was a commitment to lifelong learning, so I figured that my fervor for education was a confirmation that I chose the right career. 

 

Who or what inspired you?

My mom inspired me to continue my education. She was not able to complete college, so she always supported my decision to pursue higher education. 

 

What made you decide to apply to medical school?

I decided to apply to medical school to further explore the intricacies of disease and the human response to disease. I also wanted to prove to myself and others that I was able to succeed in medicine given my limitations and advocate for people who believe that medical school is unattainable for them. 

My CP limits the dexterity and strength on the left side of my body. I’m able to conduct basic activities of daily living on my own, but in my own way. I knew that medical school would present challenges because of the procedural side of medicine. Nonetheless, it was my passion. I knew that there were more people like me with passions to become doctors that didn’t pursue them due to fears of failure. I knew that by succeeding, I could help encourage other people with limitations, or those who don’t fit the standard “mold” of a medical student, to follow their dreams. 
 

Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?

Most of my family and friends were extremely encouraging and supportive of my decision to apply to medical school. However, there were members of my family who were hesitant and warned me about being forthcoming about CP. They were afraid that it would hurt my chances of being accepted. 

 

Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical school?

In college I found a TED Talk by a palliative care physician named BJ Miller. Dr. Miller spoke about his experience losing both legs and part of his arm in college and how he used those experiences to shape his career. Hearing someone with physical imitations discuss their journey through medicine showed me that I could also succeed in medicine. 

 

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

I stayed engaged with all of my classes leading up to junior year and took a review course. Much of my knowledge about the application process came from friends and pre-health societies in college. I also had great advisors in my liberal arts honors program who were well-versed in the application process. I met with them regularly throughout my time in college to make sure I stayed on track with timelines and pre-requisites. I did use the internet for guidance, but I would warn those applying to make sure you check the sources! There is misinformation running rampant in some of the most popular forums for premed students. 

 

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?

I was most concerned about the time. I had  never taken such a long exam and was most concerned about my stamina on test day. I felt like the review course and materials provided from the course prepared me well for the exam itself. I felt that the only thing that I would have done differently is take more practice tests to get used to the style of questions asked. 

Looking back, I was happy with the score that I received. One piece of advice I hope everyone takes is to not compare yourself to how someone else did. You can always find someone who scored higher, and you can always find someone who scored lower. Be happy with your score!    

 

Did you have any fears going into medical school?

I feared that I wouldn’t be successful and that one day the administration would revoke my acceptance. I had a bad case of imposter syndrome in the weeks leading up to starting school. 

 

How did you prepare for medical school before your first day?

Just prior to starting medical school, I moved into my new apartment and explored San Antonio as much as I could. I knew that my free time was about to become much more limited so I tried to do as much  as I could before school started. I visited the Alamo, the missions, and the Riverwalk for the first time since I was a kid and ate my way through as many Tex-Mex restaurants as possible. I also explored the Texas Hill Country by taking day trips to Fredericksburg, TX and state parks around South Texas.  
 

What made your medical school the right fit for you?

I was born and raised in Texas and wanted to stay in Texas to be closer to my friends and family. Having grown up in Houston and having lived in Austin for college, I wanted to experiment with a new city. I remember going on second looks for the schools that I was accepted to and feeling that the students at UT Health San Antonio were genuinely happy to be there. I also fell in love with the city of San Antonio. It was a new city for me with plenty of things to do, and a vibrant culture, and a historically significant city in Texas history. 

 

What kind of financial aid did you need to pay for medical school?

For the first few years, I received financial assistance from the GI Bill. I also have financial support from my parents and have a loan to supplement the remaining amount.  

 

What was your first year of medical school like?

My first of year of medical school was tumultuous. I ended a long-term relationship from college and struggled with being alone for the first time in a long time while juggling the coursework of medical school. However, the experience taught me to prioritize myself and showed me the strength that I have in myself. 

 

Did you have to change any of your study habits?

Yes. I incorporated more outside resources than I had used in college and began studying in the library instead of my apartment. The hours studying are long and arduous, and I find that it helps to have others around you also studying to help continue to motivate you.  

 

Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.

Since my first year, I have been involved with organized medicine. I started as a class rep to our Texas Medical Association and county medical society. I then became a delegate for my school at the American Medical Association (AMA). For the past two years, I have served on the Texas Medical Association’s Medical Student Section executive council as the Delegate co-chair to the American Medical Association. 

At UT Health San Antonio, I have served as the Research and Communications chair for one of our student-run fee clinics, the Pride Community Clinic. The clinic focuses on LGBTQ+ health and offers comprehensive care to a marginalized group of people. I have volunteered at the clinic as well as conduct research to find new ways to treat our patients. 

I have also had the opportunity to be a part of my own global health opportunity. In the summer between my first and second year of medical school, I lived and worked in Bangkok, Thailand at Chulalongkorn University Medical Center as an international scholar. I had the opportunity to work with their infectious diseases team as well as with the Thai Red Cross. I found out about the opportunity from my school’s Humanities office which is in charge of international medical experiences for students. I was a part of an international medicine elective where you are put on teams which travel to foreign countries to live and work in medicine. 

The summer between college and medical school, I traveled to Bangkok for vacation and fell in love with the city, people, and culture. Rather than join an established trip, I asked to form my own trip to Bangkok. The office put me in contact with a physician at UT Health San Antonio who was from Thailand, and I was able to build my trip from there. 

In Bangkok, I worked with the infectious diseases team. I rounded on patients, attended meetings, and sat in on conferences. I was lucky enough to always have another medical student, resident or attending close by who could translate for me. 

I also volunteered at the Thai Red Cross’ HIV clinic with one of my attendings. I helped with patient education and health literacy. Luckily, many of our patients were international and would communicate in English. 
 

What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?

I make it a point to stop studying at least an hour before I plan to go to bed to start decompressing. I also try to talk to a friend or family member outside of medical school every day to minimize stress. It’s good to hear about the outside world and take  the focus off of medical school. 

 

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?

It is essential to make time for yourself while in medical school. It is important to remind yourself that medical school is a marathon, not a sprint. For me, balancing my personal time with medical school means maintaining the same schedule on the weekends that I have on weekdays. I still wake up early on weekends so that I can be productive in the morning. Then, when lunchtime rolls around, I will take the rest of the day to catch up on personal time by reading the news, listening to music, or taking a nap. I also have continued to pursue my hobbies and passions like reading and writing. I also still find the time to explore San Antonio by trying new restaurants, coffee shops, and hiking trails with my partner. It’s also essential to not blame yourself for taking personal time. You will always find people who studied more hours than you or used more resources. All is well in the end.

 

How did you balance the demands of medical school with any additional obligations or challenges?

In addition to medical school, I am also completing an MPH  program. At times, it has been difficult to juggle my MPH classes and medical school classes. I have had to take MPH classes during my summer and winter breaks as well as concurrently with my medical school classes from time to time. I am fortunate, though, that the combined MD/MPH program at UT Health San Antonio is a 4-year program.  

 

What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?

A major obstacle that I had to overcome in medical school is how medical school changes your relationships with those who are not in medical school. There were times when my family and friends would express frustration that I did not have time to see them. 

Medical school also gave a new stress that culminated in the termination of a romantic relationship from college. Though you will have time to devote to your loved ones, it will unfortunately not be as much time as you want or that they want. You have escalating responsibilities and time commitments that those who have not gone through medical school likely will not understand. I overcame these obstacles by sharing with my family and friends my successes and failures in medical school . Sharing all aspects of the journey with those outside of medical school helps them share in the experience and understand their relationship with you in your new role.

One of the most prominent lessons that I learned my first year in medical school is to not burden yourself with the past. There will be a quiz or a test that you don’t perform as well as you would have hoped. It is in the past. It doesn’t dictate whether or not you will be a good or bad doctor. In a similar vein, look toward the future. Medical school is four years which sounds like a long time, but it will fly by. Experiment and find your passions early and don’t be afraid to explore them, regardless of what they are or what people have to say about them! 
 

What makes your story unique?

I knew very few people growing up with physical disabilities and do not know anyone in medical school with a physical limitation. My story is unique because I refused to be told that I could not do something just because I was born a certain way. 
 

What did you enjoy most about medical school?

Third year was a real turning point. I had finished the USMLE Step 1 exam, and I was finally in the clinics applying what I had learned over the past two years. I enjoyed rotating through the different specialties and trying on different hats to see what fit. Going into third year, I was undecided about which specialty I was going into, so each new clerkship had the potential of being the specialty I would ultimately choose. 

 

What surprised you the most about medical school?

I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of opportunities I had to explore interests outside of medical school. I was able to write, explore San Antonio, and foster new relationships outside of school.  

 

Are you a member of a unique demographic? If so, please describe how that shaped your medical school experience.

I identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. We are a unique demographic in medicine and continue to experience certain discriminations that other populations do not. I have used my time in medical school to help my community by volunteering at our school’s student-run LGBTQ+ clinic, the Pride Community Clinic. The experience of working with patients has been a highlight of medical school. I have also been able to teach my classmates about the complexities of LGBTQ+ healthcare through safe space trainings. 

It remains important to increase visibility for the LGBTQ+ community. I have chosen to wear a rainbow badge as a symbol of my commitment to making marginalized patients feel welcome in their clinical encounter. Additionally, I hope it serves to break down inaccurate stereotypes about a member of the LGBTQ+ community’s role in healthcare. 
 

Why did you choose your specialty?

I have always had a fascination with the brain and naturally gravitated towards psychiatry because of the impact mental illness has on a patient and a patient’s family. Psychiatry is special because while other specialties heal the body, psychiatry heals the mind. In doing so, you can have a tremendous impact on your patient and your patient’s family’s quality of life. You are able to give a patient themselves back and give them the tools to live a meaningful and worthwhile life.  

 

What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in medicine?

My advice to someone seriously considering a career in medicine is, if you can, to take time off before matriculating to medical school. I went straight from undergraduate to medical school and often wish that I had taken a gap year or two. Those in my class who took a year, or a few years, off seem to have a unique way of approaching  medical school and are some of the best students I know. They approach problems with maturity and wisdom that comes from real-world experiences. In my experiences, they also relate to patients easier and have a better sense of what they want to do within medicine.   

 

If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?

You do not need to start preparing for the MCAT as soon as you start school. You will have plenty of time for that later. I tell pre-med students to absorb as much as they can from all of their classes, because that will make studying for the MCAT much easier when that time comes. I also tell potential medical students to become involved in groups that interest  them, not groups or activities that they think are “required” to get into medical school. I spent the majority of my medical school interviews talking more about my anthropology degree than my biochemistry degree. Medical schools want passionate people. Do something that you are interested in, even if it seems far removed from the STEM fields because it will set you apart on applications. 

 

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