Jessica Means

Jessica shares how she balances going to medical school and being a professional pianist.

Jessica Means

Undergraduate: Harvard, 2009
Major: Human evolutionary biology, language citation in Spanish
Medical school: Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, 2017

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

An actress, singer, pianist, and zookeeper.

What led to your interest in medicine?

When I graduated from Harvard in 2009, I felt lost and confused because I had so many interests. I was eying medicine, but as an avid musician, I couldn’t imagine giving up the piano. I won one of Harvard’s Center for Public Interest Careers (CPIC) fellowships to work at a health care nonprofit in New York City.

By day, I worked at the Medicare Rights Center, counseling elderly and disabled Medicare beneficiaries. By night, I played around the Broadway circuit as much as possible, playing auditions, benefit concerts, master classes, and workshops.

One night, I was called to play for a benefit concert a half hour before show time; the original pianist had called out sick at the last minute. As it happened, the concert host was a pediatric neurosurgeon. She spoke to the audience about her work; I don’t even remember what she said, but I remember how it made me feel. I was fascinated!

I worked up the courage to approach her and asked if I could spend a day with her. Amazingly enough, her dream was to learn how to play the piano! She told me that if I taught her how to play the piano, she’d let me shadow her in the operating room. The second I stepped foot in the OR and watched this incredible woman, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.

I then completed a post-baccalaureate program at Harvard Extension while working full-time for the university and commuting to New York on the weekends to play. It was an immensely hectic schedule.

Now, I’m entering my second year at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons! Throughout my first year, I’ve been in the classroom and clinic, and I’ve also been playing monthly concerts with Tony Award-winner Alice Ripley. I am excited and grateful every single day.

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

Yes to both. It is so important to surround yourself with people who believe in you. I have had phenomenal mentors, including Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma, a concert violinist and pediatrician, and the aforementioned neurosurgeon. I am fortunate to have a wonderful family, and I’ve found such incredible friends who actively encourage me.

Some people have said to me, “If you go into medicine, you’ll have to give up your music!” That’s just simply not true. I have now met so many physician-musicians.

Certainly, at some stages of my medical training, it will be difficult to find time to play, but I am lucky to be studying at a university that places such a high value on the arts and truly encourages students to perform.  I am so excited to use my hands for both fields. Music and medicine both heal.

Do you see any other connections between music and medicine?

Absolutely. There are so many examples! Both are creative processes that require diligent work ethic and the ability to focus and practice/study fervently.

Personally, I really enjoy sight-reading; people will just put music in front of me that I haven’t seen before, and I will play it. I have to stay completely calm under pressure and be ready for very sudden changes that the singer may make while we’re in front of an audience. I thrive in that type of environment. I find it exciting. I think the ability to keep calm, maintain a clear mind, and be flexible in an unstable situation will certainly come in handy as a physician.

Also, in music, and especially in musical theater, we’re part of a team. In medicine, we’re part of a team. We have to work together, and excellent communication skills are key. The smallest communication error can lead to catastrophic results. For example, I handled so many cases at the Medicare Rights Center where a patient had suffered a simple misunderstanding and was consequently dis-enrolled from his/her health insurance plan. I am grateful to my background in music for giving me a chance to hone those skills!

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

It had to be my own voice telling me that this is what I want to do with my life. I had to give myself time after college to explore and to identify and listen to my own inner voice.

I left Harvard confused about what to do next. I used the four years between college and med school to quiet my mind, connect with myself, and realize that I am truly meant to go into medicine, and that my music will always be with me. Instead of going into the process burnt out and ridden with anxiety, I came to the application process refreshed, confident, and ready.

What advice would you give to medical students interested in pursuing a career track similar to yours?

If you have a few different passions, and are confused, lost, or anxious, do not be afraid to give yourself time to figure it out. Don’t let anyone rush you.

Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Find an opportunity that excites you. Put yourself out in the world and meet as many people as you can. Really talk to them. Have candid conversations. Ask them questions. Ask if they know of any opportunities. You’ll be surprised by how eager people are to help each other.

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