Jeff Mahlum

Following an injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down, Jeff wasn't sure if he'd be able to go to medical school, but he continued to pursue his dream.

Jeff Mahlum
Undergraduate: University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2013 Major: Biology
Medical school: University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, 2019

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

Even as a kid, I always wanted to be a doctor. My siblings and I used to run our own clinic with our stuffed animals as patients.

What led to your interest in medicine?

Growing up, I was immersed in a culture of healthcare because my father is a dentist and my mother is a dental hygienist. Seeing their work and the impact they had on their patients sparked my interest in pursuing a career in medicine.

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

During college, I went on two medical service trips to Central America. These opportunities were eye-opening and assured me that healthcare is a passion of mine. I was able to work closely with Central American doctors as they provided care to underserved communities and also helped to educate children and families about health promotion and disease prevention.

Additionally, I had a very personal interaction with the healthcare system. Following my sophomore year in college, I was severely injured in a diving accident that left me paralyzed from the chest down. I spent several months in inpatient rehabilitation and saw firsthand the ability that healthcare providers have to positively impact patients’ lives.

Who or what inspired you?

My first inspiration is my parents. They are amazing role models and have done so much to help me succeed. I also have a physician mentor who uses a wheelchair, and his journey and personal triumphs are also a great inspiration to me.

What made you decide to apply to medical school?

Following my injury, I was not sure if I would be able to go to medical school. Despite people with disabilities comprising a large percentage of the general population, medical students and doctors with disabilities are underrepresented in the profession. I was fortunate enough to find a mentor who uses a wheelchair who has had a long and successful career as a physician. His encouragement and words of advice played a major role in continuing to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor.

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

 I received a lot of encouragement from friends, family, and my mentor. They all were very positive and excited about my future in medicine. The only discouragement I received was from myself as I tried to overcome my doubts about being able to succeed.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

I talked with a lot of pre-medical students at my school as well as medical students who had just completed the application process. I think it is really important to talk with people who have been through the process recently, because they can offer a lot of insight that books and websites cannot offer.

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?

I remember feeling nervous the day of the exam, because I knew it could alter the direction of my life depending on my results. However, I did not let my nerves impact my focus to do as well as I could on the exam.

What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?

Spend as much time as you can taking practice tests and doing practice questions. By exam time, you will feel comfortable with the format and material.

What made your medical school the right fit for you?

First and foremost, I felt most comfortable on Interview Day at my school. Additionally, the breadth of research and volunteer opportunities that are available for medical students was very important.

What memory stands out the most from your first day of medical school?

On my first day of school, we interacted with real patients as they told our class about their stories and unique medical journeys. This experience really set the tone for the year as it reminded me that I am working hard in order to be able to care for patients.

Did you have to change any of your study habits?

 I learned to be more efficient with my time, because there is so much material that gets covered, and you can fall behind very quickly if you do not keep up with the work on a daily basis.

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

During medical school, I have volunteered at our student-run free clinics, been involved in several specialty interest groups, and served as the chair of the school ethics committee. I also have been a contributing writer for the online magazine, in-Training, which is a phenomenal resource for medical students. This summer, I have been involved in a public health research program that is looking to provide better care for minority patients with the ultimate goal of reducing health disparities that exist.

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?

Although it can be difficult, I try to separate my school and personal worlds. When I am studying for school, I am completely focused on school, and when I am spending time with family or friends, I try to block out the stresses of school.

What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?

My injury was an enormous obstacle to overcome. Rehabilitation was physically grueling and emotionally taxing, and it required a lot of patience on my part and tremendous support from family and friends. Because of my injury, I missed one semester of college, but I was still able to graduate within four years.

During medical school, I have had to learn how to overcome some of my physical limitations when performing certain aspects of the physical exam. Learning how to maneuver my wheelchair and properly position myself when performing exams like the abdominal exam or the eye exam has been the biggest challenge. During our gross anatomy laboratory, I was fortunate to be able to use a standing wheelchair. This device allowed me to be in an upright position when dissecting and was a big contributor to my success in that class. Overall, I have learned to adapt in many situations and figure out what works best for me.

What makes your story unique?

Across the country, there are not a lot of medical students who use wheelchairs. I think my experience being a patient gives me a unique perspective that some of my classmates might not share. Diversity, whether based on ability, race, gender, etc., is an important part of medicine as our patient populations are very diverse. I believe my experiences give me a unique opportunity to positively influence the field of medicine.

What did you enjoy most about medical school?

Three times per semester, we shadow a local physician and also get the opportunity to practice medical interview and physical exam skills with real patients. I love going to the clinic and hearing patients’ stories. It’s a wonderful chance to practice and a great reminder of what I am working towards.

What surprised you the most about medical school?

I was surprised by the extremely supportive environment in medical school. From professors to classmates to administration, everyone wants to see you succeed, and they are always willing to help when you are in need.

What specialties are your current top choices?

I am completely undecided in terms of which specialty I want to pursue, but I am interested in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Psychiatry, and Internal Medicine.
What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in medicine?

Make sure that medicine is what you really want to do. Medical school is difficult and will consume your life, so you must be dedicated and passionate about pursuing this career. Also, apply to medical school as early as you can in the application cycle. By applying early, you will have more opportunities for interviews, and, hopefully, more acceptances!

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