Medical School: University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, 2010
What led to your interest in a career in medicine? Who or what inspired you? Why medicine?
While I first became interested in medicine as a middle school student and completed almost all of my pre-med requirements in college, by my senior year I was leaning away from a career in medicine and towards public health, public policy, or education. I joined Teach for America and committed to two years of work in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Thanks to training as an EMT-Basic and the lack of a school nurse or athletic trainer, during that time I was often called on to evaluate students who were sick or injured at school and volunteered as the trainer for the school's football team during my second year. I realized that while I enjoyed working with teenagers, I was much better suited to medical work than to teaching and decided to take the MCAT and apply to medical school. I also witnessed the lack of access to quality care that my students experienced. For example I had one student who, after missing several weeks of school, walked into class and immediately said, "Ms. Reis, I have a hole in my leg." I figured that it was an expression and that maybe she had a cut or a cyst, but when she pulled up her pant leg, there was indeed a hole in the flesh about half an inch deep surrounded by inflamed and necrotic tissue. She explained that she'd gotten a spider bite but that she had been unable to follow up on medical care due to lack of transportation and poor insurance.
How did you prepare for the application process?
I was rather nervous about the application process before I started it. I had been out of college for a year when I took the MCAT and it had been three or four years since I'd taken most of my pre-med courses, so I took an MCAT prep course. The structured review schedule helped me be consistent about studying and the practice tests helped me feel prepared for what to expect when I went to take the MCAT. In retrospect, I wish I had gotten more information about applying as an undergrad because I didn't realize that I was applying very late in the cycle and that many programs had already filled their available interview days. I spent a lot of time and money on applications to some of these programs. However, when I interviewed at Wisconsin, I knew that I had found a school that felt like a great fit, and as soon as I was accepted, I withdrew my remaining applications.
If you participated in a special program, such as a combined degree, fellowship, or research work, please describe your experience.
Along with my M.D., I spent a year pursuing a Master's of Public Health. I took two semesters of courses, did a field work experience working on policy issues with the Wisconsin Cancer Council, plus got joint credit for some of my third and fourth year rotations. The more flexible schedule also allowed me to be involved in leadership activities without feeling like I was compromising my education or patient care. The MPH also gave me the opportunity to look at the broader context in which medical care takes place and have a deeper understanding of the determinants of health that go far beyond a doctor's office or hospital.
Please describe related volunteer work or military experience that relates to your career.
One of the things that I learned about myself while I was teaching was how much I enjoy working with teenagers. That has carried through to medical school. Adolescents are a group that can fall through the cracks in health care because many do not receive the regular check-ups that they did as children, but they're at a point in their lives where they're establishing habits of body and mind that they will bring with them through the rest of their lives. I am currently applying to psychiatry residency programs and plan to do a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry when I complete my general psychiatry training.
What obstacles or hurdles did you overcome in your medical school journey?
One of the most challenging times of medical school was my first year. While teaching was often frustrating, it also felt like I was doing something that was needed and important. The first year of medical school can feel very removed from patient care, even though I now call on that knowledge in a clinical setting. At the same time, I began to learn more about how dysfunctional our health care system can be and how we often fail to care for those who most need it. In addition, I had been a history major as an undergrad so my training had focused a lot more on writing and analysis and much less on memorizing details. During this time, I struggled to keep my spirits and motivation up and questioned whether I had chosen the right field. That said, I think that overall my time away from school has served me very well. My transition to clinical clerkships was smooth and joyous and I am very excited to be part of this field.
What makes your story unique?
One thing that I did not expect when I got to medical school was that I would become very involved in leadership on the school and national level. I moved back to Wisconsin from Louisiana just three weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck, so while I was supposed to be focused on starting anatomy and biochemistry, I couldn't tear myself away from ongoing news from New Orleans. I worried about my students and friends who were still there, and tried to organize fundraisers and raise awareness of what was going on. Because of those activities, I was encouraged to get involved in student government, an area that I had largely ignored since high school, and was elected to be my class's representative to the AAMC's Organization of Student Representatives (OSR). That November I attended my first OSR meeting and discovered one of the most dynamic, engaging, and fun groups that I had ever met. I was elected to a position on the OSR's board and the next year, ran for the chair-elect position. By getting involved in this capacity, I feel that I have been able to be an advocate for change in areas of medical education that are not as strong as they could be and facilitate communication between students and their teachers and institutions at the local and national level.
What advice do you have for new applicants considering a career in medicine?
For those considering a career in medicine, I would recommend a few things. First, if you are still in college, seriously consider taking a year or two to do something that gets you out of the classroom before you go to medical school. I know a lot of students who went straight to medical school only to discover that they were burned out and not sure if medicine was the right path for them. I have yet to meet anyone who regrets taking time to do something different, and it makes you a more competitive applicant and a doctor who is more able to relate to patients and see the world from a different perspective.
I would also encourage students to be open to serendipity when choosing schools, specialties, and residency programs—it's hard to really know what will be a good fit and preconceived notions can prevent people from finding the right place or career.
Finally, remember to have fun with the experience. So much of what we get to see and do in medical school is downright cool, and if you spend all your time too worried about grades or letters of recommendation to enjoy it, you're missing out on what probably brought you into medicine to begin with.