Medical School: Washington University School of Medicine, 2013
Update: Since this story was originally published in 2009, Elizabeth's approach toward the medical profession and patient care have further developed due to the experiences she’s had over the past several years. Her focus now includes health policy in addition to serving the underserved.
What led to your interest in a career in medicine? Who or what inspired you? Why medicine?
It is one of the world's most essential professions. Good health is the most valuable possession of the rich and poor alike; nothing else matters if you are not healthy enough to enjoy it. And no matter where I go in the world, people will be sick and needing medical treatment. Doctors are useful anywhere, in any economy, and in any culture.
But my life's dream, the reason I applied to medical school, is to devote my life to international humanitarian assistance. I wish to move to an underdeveloped country and spend years caring for some of the world's most marginalized people. I want to feed peanut butter to starving children in Cambodia, teach AIDS prevention in Africa, or treat malaria in South America. I am excited to spend extended periods of time without electricity, hot water, or even speaking English. Some doctors wish to do this for a year or two; I wish to do it for a lifetime.
What inspired me? All the pain and suffering around me. I cannot hear about some tragedy on the news, from genocide in Darfur to the destruction of New Orleans, without wanting to fly there and help directly with the relief effort. It is so hard for me to sit in one place while I know that others are in pain. I cannot wait until I get my M.D. so that I can travel the world and commit more than money to stopping international medical crises.
How did you prepare for the application process?
I enjoyed myself in college. I took the classes I found interesting, studied abroad, and participated in extracurricular activities that inspired me. My pre-med advisor was constantly bothering me to retake classes I had AP credit for to boost my college science GPA, to do bench research I wasn't interested in, or to join more premed organizations. He told me not to study abroad so that I could instead spend my summer taking high-level chemistry classes, volunteering to do data entry in the hospital, and studying for the April MCAT.
Some people like the sorts of things that my advisor suggested, but they weren't really for me. Medicine is my passion and my career choice, but it's not my entire life. I kept my sanity by getting involved in things that made me come alive (some medical and some not) and hoped that med school admissions committees would appreciate someone who really loved the things she did over someone who participated in activities which look good on AMCAS applications. And it worked out just great—I got a scholarship to attend my first-choice medical school.
Please describe related volunteer work or military experience that relates to your career.
In the summer between my first and second year of medical school, I volunteered at an HIV/AIDS residential facility in South Africa. I spent every day surrounded by HIV-positive mothers and children who had been rescued from slums, xenophobic violence, or domestic abuse. I helped with the cooking and cleaning, read to the children, and helped manage the antiretroviral medications and opportunistic infections for over a hundred people.
Living with HIV-positive people completely changed my perception of the disease. At the beginning, I was terrified of contracting HIV from picking up a child with a skinned knee, eating meals from our HIV-positive cook, or from not washing my hands often enough. But as I got to know the residents, I found out that it was almost impossible for them to inadvertently transmit the virus and, what's more, that they were people just like everyone else. I stand in awe of the pride with which they carried themselves despite debilitating disease and the unstable social situations they came from.
Furthermore, I learned that every disease has a social context. It is impossible to practice medicine only as a science without considering patients' humanity, and sometimes the best remedy for a disease is to correct the underlying social problem. For example, some of the women I met in Africa knowingly slept with HIV-positive men to ensure themselves places to live or food for their children. If these women had been offered another way of assuring such security, they would still be free of the virus.
Since I plan to practice medicine principally in underdeveloped countries, the working conditions of my career will be very different than the conditions under which I am being trained. Here in America we have problems with obesity, hypertension, and cancer. We have an infinite variety of pharmaceuticals and specialized medical devices for every need, from 3D CT imaging to surgical lasers. In the third world, on the other hand, the biggest problems are infectious diseases and malnutrition. Most of the medications I learn about in school will be either too expensive or impossible to transport to rural areas, and the highest-tech equipment I am likely to encounter will be an ultrasound machine. I will have much fewer resources than the typical American tertiary care center and will have to be very resourceful in treating my patients. I am interested to see how my medical education will adapt to such radically different circumstances.
What advice do you have for new applicants considering a career in medicine?
Enjoy yourself. Do things which interest you and not just things which look good on an AMCAS application. But do participate in enough medical activities to assure yourself that you are truly interested in being a doctor. Medical school is a huge time commitment, so it's best to figure out if it's right for you before you spend your next four years constantly studying.
Don't freak out about the MCAT; it is only one part of your overall admissions profile.
Only apply to medical schools that you could honestly see yourself going to. The application and interview process is too expensive for you to apply to a dozen places on a whim.
Travel. It will make you a more well-rounded person and will enable you to identify with a diverse set of patients.
While in med school, don't forget to keep up with your old friends and retain a few of your hobbies. It's important to remember that—despite how much you will be studying—there is life outside of medical school. You will also need to keep some social skills alive for when you interact with patients!