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Kanani Titchen

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How Kanani applies the skills learned through the arts and her experience working with at-risk youth to her career in medicine.

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Kanani Titchen

Medical School: Jefferson Medical College, 2012

What led to your interest in a career in medicine? Who or what inspired you?

Theater led me to medicine. After graduating with a background in lab research, I worked as an actress in a professional repertory company.

Supplementing my income with temp jobs and teaching jobs, I worked with inner-city, "at risk" youth, many of whom were either in gangs themselves or had lost friends to gang-related shootings.

Working with them through psycho-social programs, I saw these children identify with characters on stage and, in response, examine their own choices and make better ones.

But there came a point when I wanted to do more: I became captivated by the body’s workings and by the prospect of treating and preventing disease.

How did you prepare for the application process?

Once in New York City, I supported my acting career with a research job at the Population Council. They funded me to take a class in Physiology at Columbia University.

Once at Columbia, I discovered their post-bac premed program and knew I’d found my path.

If you participated in a special program, such as a combined degree, fellowship, or research work please describe your experience:

Columbia’s program was rigorous. I had thought that I could balance a full-time job in biomedical research and the program. When my dad became critically ill in the middle of my first year at Columbia, something had to give.

My dad died at the end of that first year, and I quit my job to attend Columbia full-time during the second year of the program. It was absolutely the right decision.

Please describe related volunteer work or military experience that relates to your career:

As an actress and teaching artist, my volunteer work frequently led to paying jobs. For example, my work with inner-city at-risk teens in San Diego began as a volunteer opportunity. That led to more work with teenagers.

The skills learned through the arts—creative and critical thinking, techniques for inspiring others, artful communication, perseverance in the face of failure, global perspectives, and the ability to tackle big themes—absolutely are relevant to both the teaching and medical fields. My communication with patients is simple, honest, and compassionate.

What obstacles or hurdles did you overcome in your medical school journey?

Fear has been my greatest obstacle. Fear of failure: Failed exams—mostly little ones but sometimes bigger; failure to balance my family and friends with the rigors of pre-med and medical academics. And fear of debt, at first it was daunting to think we might sink $50,000 into a post-bac program with no guarantee of my getting to medical school.

Once I earned a few acceptances, that fear was replaced with the fear of even greater debt. But my grandmother influenced me early on, saying, “Education and children are an investment—the best kind you’ll ever make.”

Are you a member of a unique demographic? Did you change careers? Were you married and raising a family? Please describe how that shaped your medical school experience.

I find myself in the minority as an artist, as an older married student, and as a Hawaii transplant to Philadelphia. Fortunately, Jefferson offered me 250 other diverse people as classmates and friends. Also, the professors who value the arts and humanities and are transplants from far-flung places; they “get” me.

More and more, older “non-traditional” students are becoming the norm, and I think we bring a much-needed perspective to the traditional medical school curricula. When you’ve experienced major, life-changing events—marriage, death of a parent, birth of a child—it’s much more difficult to get worked up about class averages and “pass” versus “honors.”

What has surprised you the most about medical school?

Two things surprise me about medical school and medicine:

(1) No day is the same, because no patient is the same. I get jazzed learning about people and seeing them get back to their lives.

(2) The constant changes to healthcare and to scientific knowledge and technology are both frustrating and tremendously challenging and exciting. They leave me in awe and eager to understand more!

What one thing would you want to change about the way medicine is currently practiced?

I wonder if primary care will become a field dominated by nurse practitioners and physician assistants. I see this as a solution to the shortage of physicians in these fields, but I also wonder if this will further reduce the number of medical students who choose primary care fields because of the commensurate decrease in salaries.

Will any of this—large student debt, the lower compensation in much-needed fields, and the cost of medical malpractice insurance—change in the coming years? Ultimately, I think it will; but sweeping reform doesn’t occur often in politics and policy these days.

It seems to me that change is slow, creeping, and inevitable. And I don’t know anyone who has a clear picture of what these changes will be.

What advice do you have for new applicants considering a career in medicine?

  • Do something else first. Find an interest outside of medicine and cultivate it. Outside interests help many health care workers maintain balance and perspective—a necessity in the midst of stressful and often life-or-death situations.
  • Travel. Learn about the world around you. Take an interest in other cultures and peoples. A number of programs exist for high school students to volunteer in third world countries or with organizations here in the U.S., such as Habitat for Humanity or the Sierra Club, etc. Churches and synagogues and mosques frequently subsidize faith-based outreach, and these are wonderful opportunities to learn and contribute. I believe that it is through travel and learning about others that we learn compassion and empathy.
  • Cultivate curiosity. Keep asking “How?” Desire to know how things work—government, electronics, the body, ecosystems, musical instruments, etc.
  • Think creatively. Learn to identify problems, but go a step beyond simply identifying problems—dream up solutions.
  • Work your butt off academically, and learn early to study efficiently. Hone the art of memorization; this may not make you a better healthcare worker, but it will make you a better medical/nursing/PT/OT/pharmacy student.
  • Network. If you’re interested in medical school or a specific field, find someone in medicine and initiate a conversation with them. Learn the details so that you know what you’re getting into!

Do you have additional information or thoughts to share that would be helpful to prospective students?

  • Perseverance—See things through to their end, even (especially) when you want to give up.
  • Boldness—Do not be afraid of failure. Strive for success, but see any failures as opportunities to learn how to do better.
  • Joy—Every career has its duller moments, but choose a field that excites you. Your enthusiasm will contribute to your ability to excel, and it will inspire those around you—colleagues and superiors alike.

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