Jennifer Ellis, MD
Undergraduate: Yale University, 1985
Medical School: Jefferson Medical College, 1990
Business School: The Johns Hopkins University, 2006
Specialty: Cardiothoracic Surgeon
"Even when you are thinking to yourself, "Why do I need to know about the Krebs Cycle?" remember that you are being tested to prepare for the future."
What made you decide to go to medical school?
My father was a psychiatrist, and in my household we were encouraged to go as far as you could academically and in life.
Did anyone discourage you?
Definitely. As one of only five African-American, female, board certified cardiothoracic surgeons in the country, I have faced some discouragement. There are a lot of people that will discourage you. Avoid the naysayers; don't tell them your dreams. Surround yourself with people who support your ambitions.
Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical school?
When I was a child my babysitter had a congenital heart condition. I recall her lips being blue, it was that bad. I asked my father about it and I was never quite satisfied with his explanation. I wanted to know how to fix it, not just the cause. That question of how to make it better was always in the back of my mind.
Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?
It is just a test. I did my core requirements in undergraduate, studied for it, and took the test.
Did you have any concerns or reservations about medical school?
I was a philosophy major in undergraduate school. I felt that I might be at some disadvantage once I got to medical school because I had not been a bio-chemistry or a biology major, and in my first two years that did prove challenging. However, in my third and fourth years, it was to my advantage that I had a philosophy background.
Tell me more about the application process, barriers that you encountered or why you think some barriers may be more challenging than others for minorities?
The essay is very important, and although it may seem like it's all about the numbers, spend some time to craft a quality statement. Some of the barriers out there are absolutely true, and others are absolutely inadvertent. You have to pick your battles, there is still fundamental racism, some people may try to make things difficult for you, but there are others that are trying to make it better. Don't give anyone the opportunity to single you out. Dot every i, and cross every t. Keep your eye on the prize, ask for help if you need it and hold yourself to the highest standard.
Do you remember your first day of medical school? What memory stands out the most?
There wasn't a critical mass of African-Americans and I remember having to reach out to everyone, African-American, white or other, to make friends. To avoid feeling like an outsider, I created study groups to get to know my classmates better. I also had no apprehension in approaching my professors. Without exception, my professors were always helpful when I asked question or needed extra help.
Once you got through the application process, and Day 1, what was your first year of medical school like?
You are away from home, studying very hard for long hours, and the environment is much more serious than undergraduate school. It is much more businesslike, not in a cut-throat type of way, but in a much more practical way. If you don't do the work and do it successfully, you don't become a doctor. You really have to make the commitment to know this material because down the line, people are putting their lives in your hands.
Even when you are thinking to yourself, why do I need to know about the Krebs Cycle, remember that you are being tested to prepare for the future. The commitment to providing your patients quality care begins in medical school. Studying as much as you can about your subject and being able to draw upon the knowledge at any time enables you to provide them the best care possible.
In medical school you will have 90 hours of work each week, 3 times more work than in undergraduate. If you don't get this time management skill from day one, you are going to have a difficult time.
I am tutoring a medical student at the moment and I constantly remind them that time never shows up late. If you get behind, don't think it's going to get better the next week. Stay on top of you work from day one.
How do you see your medical career progressing in the future? What do you hope to do?
I am having a grand time. The harder you work in the beginning, in undergraduate school and medical school, the more options you get in your career as you move along. If I had skipped any of those steps and not been prepared to do my best, I would have missed out on some great opportunities.
I have an interest in healthcare policy. We have a tremendous opportunity in this era to make some significant change. Medicine is going to be very different in the next five years. Minorities need to be an active voice in the healthcare debate and be part of the conversation. If not, changes will be foisted upon minority communities that can affect health outcomes adversely. We really must be proactive.
How do you balance your personal time with your medical practice?
That is actually getting better for me these days. When I started out, you sacrificed your personal life for medicine. That historical imbalance devastated the family lives of some of the great cardiothoracic surgeons. However, I think that we may be going too far in the opposite direction now. We shouldn't want to become cookie cutter physicians. We have a responsibility to know more about our patients than anyone else. By working fewer hours, you risk losing that connection to the patient. The 80 hour work week (and sometimes more) helps you know your patient better.
If you could do it over again, would you?
Yes. But it was very difficult. I don't want students to think that the decision is made without great sacrifice. Your time is one of the greatest sacrifices, and in some ways your youth is another. But despite those sacrifices, I really love what I do.
Did you consider any other way to make a living?
At one point I felt trapped in medicine. After my residency, I faced some challenges that made me think twice about my career path, but I had student loans to pay back, and I pushed forward to accomplish my goal of becoming a surgeon.
Talk for a moment about your thoughts on health care and health disparities for minorities?
Health care disparities and biases exist, even for minority doctors. One of my patients is an African-American tobacco farmer with an 8th grade education. He came to my office with heart issues and my first assumption was that he wouldn't have the family backing and support for heart surgery. In our first meeting, my assumptions were completely undone. Through our conversation I came to realize that despite his lack of formal education, he was a very sharp man who had to drop out of middle school as a teenager to support his brothers and sisters. Not only that, but those brothers and sisters that he cared for were right there with him in support of his surgery. All physicians make judgments about race, class and social standing. Being aware of these biases and getting past them is an essential part of patient care.
What one word would you use to describe yourself?
What do you enjoying doing most in your spare time?
Unfortunately, golf. I picked it up in medical school and have been addicted ever since.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A doctor. Nothing else really gripped me in the same way.
Do you have a personal hero/mentor? If so who, and why are they important to you?
I have been fortunate to have several mentors. One that stands out is a high school English teacher. I would submit a three page paper and after grading it, the instructor would attach five pages of comments critiquing what I was trying to discuss. At the time I didn't appreciate that, but in retrospect, he was doing me a great service.
Who is your favorite musician/band?
I don't really have a favorite musician or band. I usually let the surgical assistants pick the tunes in the operating room. I do have veto power though, so no heavy metal!
What is your favorite book/what was the last book that you read?
"Angle of Repose" by Wallace Stegner. It is a different book to read in your 40s as oppose to your 20s.
Who is your favorite medical doctor on TV?
I can't watch the medical T.V. shows anymore. When ER first came out, I was in my residency and watched, but after a while the show had more trauma than we did. It got absurd pretty quickly.
How about turning the tables. If there is one person that you could sit down and interview, who would it be?
Madam Marie Sklodowska Currie she had to juggle everything—mom, wife, physicist, chemist, and noble prize winner. Also, Albert Einstein's first wife, Mileva Maric. It has been said that she played a major role in discussing his ideas and theories as they developed.
Offer one piece of advice to aspiring doctors?
This is the most rewarding thing that you can do. You get a sense of fulfillment from your work. As a physician, you provide aid and do charity every day. If there is anything else that will make you happier, do it. This is a commitment of body and soul. If you like sleeping in your own bed every night, do something else.