Issac Duggan

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Witnessing family illness, shadowing physicians, and working as a paramedic inspired Issac to pursue a career in medicine.

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Headshot photo of medical student Issac Duggan

Undergraduate: Indiana University-Bloomington
Major: B.S. In Kinesiology with a Major in Exercise Science
Medical school and expected year of graduation: The University of California San Francisco, Class of 2025


As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Growing up I actually had very little interest in medicine. I was more interested in law enforcement and had aspirations of joining the FBI.

What led to your interest in medicine?
When I was younger my neighbor got into a car accident down the street from my house, and I remember watching the Life Flight helicopter land and take-off-- that sparked my initial interest in paramedicine. (Paramedicine is a term describing various individuals who have emergency medical service training and credentials.) Later, as a young adult, I dealt with family illnesses that caused me to spend a lot of time in the hospital, and I became very curious about everything that took place there. It was the culmination of these experiences that led me to become increasingly interested in the field of medicine.

What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?
Initially I wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement, but there were certain experiences in my life that pushed me in the direction of medicine. I think the first, and perhaps the one that had the biggest impact, was losing my dad at age 13. I remember seeing the ICU and all the machines while visiting him-- this experience really changed the way I thought about medicine.

Next, was experiencing my mom being diagnosed with cancer. Watching someone I loved dearly get sicker and sicker and eventually pass away confirmed my desire and passion to take care of others facing similar illnesses. Lastly, I had the opportunity to shadow in pediatric cardiac surgery and saw a pediatric cardiac transplantation, and that moment further solidified that I had to be involved in medicine.  Seeing how medicine can have a drastic impact on someone’s life really made me commit down that path.

Who or what inspired you?
My adoptive parents inspired me the most. Growing up, I was not a high achieving student until I reached college. I started out in special education and required speech therapy. However, my parents never let those experiences allow me to think that I couldn’t do something that required a great deal of education.

Despite nearly being held back many times when I was young, they continued to support me in whichever avenue I chose. My parents were foster parents who’ve fostered 150 different children over the span of 20 years. Their work in supporting and taking care of children of all ages inspired me to choose a career of service to give back to my community. The work they did in the foster care system is what I think sparked my initial interest in pediatric medicine.

What made you decide to apply to medical school?
I took time off in between obtaining my bachelor’s degree and going to medical school. I really grappled with the idea of either becoming a physician assistant or a physician. I was very intimidated of the medical school process and didn’t know if it was the right fit for me. However, after spending time shadowing at Lurie Children’s Hospital, seeing pediatric surgeries, and watching the entire team function day-to-day, medical school really attracted me. In addition, while working as a paramedic in the ER, I worked alongside numerous physicians who inspired me.  

Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?
Many people encouraged me to go to medical school despite my own reservations. At times, I did not think I was academically competent enough to handle the workload that medical school throws at you, but time after time my mentors would remind me that, “It would be a disservice to yourself if you didn’t at least try.”

Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical school?
Yes, Dr. Katherine Bell was the single biggest inspiration that led me to apply to medical school. She is a family friend and an emergency medicine physician who helped me navigate through my reservations and fears about applying to medical school. She advised me well before I applied and was there to give me motivation on days when I had second thoughts or questioned if I was going down the right path.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?
I took three gap years in order to be a more competitive applicant. During that time, I worked as a paramedic to gain clinical experience, and I shadowed physicians to gain insight into what made them unique.

Additionally, I got involved in community service work.  I championed a summer reading program called “Camp Read Some More” that allowed elementary school students to come in during the summer and practice their reading skills. I also supported “Boys with Books,” a reading program that allowed behaviorally at-risk elementary students to come to school early in the morning to not just practice reading skills, but also to emphasize the importance of developing healthy and smart ways to deal with situations that cause anger. Lastly, I supported a program in the local school system called the “Big Brother Club” that targeted at-risk students who lacked male role models. I acted as a mentor and confidant to help children find ways to think before acting out.

My application process was also unique because it occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was working as a paramedic in a local ER as an essential worker which made things a bit more challenging. However, I still set aside time to adequately prepare for the MCAT® exam and complete all the typical things one does to prepare for the application process (i.e., letters of recommendation, Personal Statement, and making a school list). I also applied for and was accepted into AAMC Fee Assistance Program, which significantly reduced the cost of applying to medical school. 

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?
Yes, I was extremely intimidated by the MCAT exam. First, growing up I had never been the strongest standardized test taker. I also prepared for and took the MCAT [exam] during the pandemic, which made it difficult to find a quiet study space. Lastly, I was also working nights as a paramedic, which made it challenging to establish a dedicated study schedule.

What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?
For many applicants the MCAT [exam] is a barrier between them and medical school. My advice is to have a positive mindset and be consistent in studying. There are many resources you can use to prepare for the exam, but don’t feel like you have to use all of them. Use the ones that work best for you. Always remember to pace yourself; this whole process, even studying for the MCAT [exam], is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s O.K. to take breaks! The premed culture can be very competitive at times, and the MCAT [exam] can become very stressful, but remember to celebrate yourself every once in a while, too!

How did you prepare for medical school before your first day?
Honestly, after I got accepted, I spent time with family before I moved. I spent a lot of time at our family’s summer home doing things I loved-- including water skiing and water sports. I think a lot of students feel they must study prior to medical school; however, I think it’s more important to do things you love and take time to mentally prepare yourself for the start of school.    

What made your medical school the right fit for you?
I had always been interested in attending medical school in a city, but UCSF really interested me because of the school’s student diversity and commitment to advocating for marginalized communities in medicine. I always wanted to travel to and live in San Francisco, and this was the perfect opportunity. Also, I loved the curricular setup and the access to the great hospital systems in and around San Francisco.

What memory stands out the most from your first day of medical school?
I remember sitting in our first class, all 166 of us, feeling quite uneasy and one of our professors reminded us that, “It’s helpful to embrace how different medical school is from undergrad-- you have been chosen to be here. We want you to be successful and are here to help. It is helpful to remember that passing [equals an] MD, but what is most important is learning the material so you can better care for patients.”

That comment has really stuck with me. It really makes me feel supported when our professors from the very first day remind us that they believe in us and truly want us to succeed. In addition, it was also fun realizing that my brother and I were not the only identical twins in our class!

What was your first year of medical school like?
The first year had its ups and downs, stressful times, and it had its fun times, too. I think the most important thing to remember is how different medical school is from most other training paradigms and to embrace the challenges. Medical school is hard for everyone for different reasons, but it’s also a very fun experience at the same time. You continuously learn new things and meet new people.

What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?
When I get overwhelmed, I like to shadow to remind myself why I initially wanted to get into medicine. It’s easy to feel stressed and overwhelmed and forget why you started, but seeing what we learn in class tangibly applied to real patient cases reinvigorates me to continue despite the stresses of school.  

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?
I set limits for myself. There is enough information there to permit me to study all day, every day, but I don’t think that is what is best for me. I like to have one day of the week where I engage in hobbies that keep me motivated so I don’t burn out.  

What did you enjoy most about medical school?
So far, I have enjoyed the patient care and learning about the human body. But I really love taking what we learn in the classroom and applying those skills to real patients most. In addition, I love how we can shadow in whichever department of medicine we want, and that faculty and mentors are so open to working with students. I feel very supported by the professors and faculty at UCSF.

What surprised you the most about medical school?
I was surprised that, despite how rigorous the training is, you can still balance your time to have fun outside of medical school. I always thought that I would be studying all day and every day, and while I do study a lot, I am able to have a life outside of school too.

Are you a member of a unique demographic? If so, please describe how that shaped your medical school experience.
Yes, being an underrepresented minority in medicine has shaped the experiences I have had in school thus far. Attending a school where there is so much diversity both within the medical school class and the community allows me to interact with others who are part of this unique demographic. It reminds me how important it is to advocate for this demographic of patients and educate myself of the struggles and challenges they face in accessing healthcare. It makes me be extremely conscious of how as a future provider I must understand the challenges my URM patients will face in accessing healthcare.

What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in medicine?
Remember that the path is not always linear. Although there will be challenges and obstacles, remember your long-term goal, what got you interested in medicine and to use that as a motivating factor when obstacles arise.  

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