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Kelly Cawcutt, MD

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Dr. Cawcutt, who was a first generation college student, says her story proves that it does not matter who you are or what your background is – you can succeed at becoming a physician.

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Undergraduate: University of Wisconsin – River Falls
Major: Biology and Honors Majors
Medical school: University of Minnesota Medical School, 2008
Residency Training: Internal Medicine; University of Minnesota
Fellowship: Mayo Clinic, Rochester MN
Specialty: Infectious Diseases and Critical Care Medicine

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

I wanted to be several different things. When I was really young, I was obsessed with Archeology and ancient Egypt. Later, I seriously considered education or law.

What led to your interest in medicine?

I grew up going to the doctor for various significant health reasons and would find myself looking at the anatomy posters, the x-rays, and asking questions. It was my general curiosity and constant exposure to medicine that led to my interest in it.

What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?

In college I worked as a PCA (personal care assistant) caring for children with complex medical problems and disabilities. It was the care giving and connection building that led me to feel this was the right path for me.

Who or what inspired you?

My inspiration was my family. I am a first generation college student, but I grew up with a family of strong women and men who respected that strength. I was supported and encouraged to excel, to chase my dreams and succeed on my own terms. I was given the great gift of being allowed to choose my path, not following one laid out for me. Every accomplishment I have had has been celebrated with my family. Without their support and inspiration, I would not be where I am today.

What made you decide to apply to medical school?

In addition to my job as a caretaker, I designed and taught a one credit honors class on disability awareness while I was still a student myself.  I also had a job working in a county prosecutor’s office, so I considered going into education or law. However, I was told by an advisor that I was too skilled in math and science to not pursue a career in that arena. I loved law for its complexities but was not in love with the idea of living out that career. Thus, I decided medicine was my route and applied.

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

Yes. My professors, friends and family encouraged me but at the same time I could see their nervousness about what would happen if I did not get accepted.

The two people who discouraged me were both physicians. One who was in the process of quitting after becoming very disillusioned with medicine. The other had moved and cut back his hours significantly to improve his quality of life. I was told that if I was not careful about protecting my relationships with family and friends, I would have no one left to fall back on. I thought about this and decided that did not have to be my path.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

I looked up the application process, read about it and figured it out on my own. None of my college advisors had enough familiarity with the medical school application process. No one in my family or a close friend had either.

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?

Initially, I think everyone is nervous about the MCAT. I had done well in all of my course work and that carried me through my concerns. However, in retrospect I did not realize how truly important the MCAT is in the medical school application process.

What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?

Studying content is important, but I think training yourself to think and take a test for that long is actually harder. Most students have not taken a single test that lasts all day before the MCAT, though day long tests later in medical training are not uncommon. Take full practice tests. Train yourself to concentrate and focus. Learn where your limits are and how to take a few minutes to rest your brain and get back on track.

Did you have any fears going into medical school?

I was afraid of not being good enough compared to the other students who had family members who were physicians or those students who were coming from the Ivy League. I was worried about what I would do if I was not smart enough.

What kind of financial aid did you need to pay for medical school?

I needed full support for tuition, supplies and living expenses. This consisted of grants, scholarships, and significant student loans. I had worked throughout college to pay for as much as I could, but that was not going to be feasible in the same way for medical school.

What memory stands out the most from your first day of medical school?

I am not sure if it was the first day, but there were two things said early in orientation that I have never forgotten. First, I remember being told that learning medicine would be equivalent to learning a foreign language and 40,000 new words. Having studied three languages in college, I realized what I had thought about learning medicine was going to be very different from the reality. The other was a discussion of work-life balance and that we would have to fight to maintain the life part as students.

What was your first year of medical school like?

It was busy, but it was truly a lot of fun. Our class all bonded in the beginning over anatomy lab and studying. I was blessed to make some fantastic friends early on and we definitely had fun despite all the classes and studying.

Did you have to change any of your study habits?

Yes, I had to learn to study for longer periods of time and realized that I had to put hours into taking notes (still the best way I remember) and making diagrams. It’s not possible to cram for tests in medical school the same way I could, if needed, in college. There was just too much material. I had to pace myself.

Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.

I volunteered for teaching workshops, and was very involved in the American Medical Association both at the local and national level throughout medical school. I also rotated at the Karolinska in Stockholm. For fun, I played intramural volleyball and ran half-marathons/marathons with a group of friends. In residency, I participated in my first research project and presented cases, including the opportunity to present at the national American College of Physicians (ACP) meeting.

What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?

Exercise and time by myself to decompress have always been critical for me. If I am engulfed in medicine or around people all of the time I start to burn out. I need to have time alone to really recharge.

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?

You have to plan. You have to schedule personal time in or it will easily fade away. Make plans with someone else who will hold you accountable to take a break. It is a balancing act where there will be give and take, but as long as you aren’t always tipped to one side you will likely succeed in balancing whatever it is you need to focus on.

What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?

For me, the hardest was the death of my grandfather while I was in medical school. He died in the medical school hospital of septic shock. We were close so I was devastated and reminded of his death every day. I did not do as well that semester, but I managed, and I know today he would be incredibly proud of me. He saw me in my medical student white coat before he died and was incredibly proud then. That kept me going on the days I was not sure I could.

What makes your story unique?

I am a first generation college student and had to find my own way through the process of becoming a physician. My story proves that it does not matter who you are or what your background is – you can succeed.

What did you enjoy most about medical school?

I developed lifelong friends who will forever understand what it means to become a physician. Friends and family who have not traveled this path may empathize with you, but they can never really understand it in full. Entering this new culture and career was what I reflect on the most when I think about medical school—all of the people and experiences that shaped me.

What surprised you the most about medical school?

I was most surprised by how medical school changed me - the language, the culture, the impact of ward rotations and the first code I participated in.  I knew entering medicine I would learn what I needed to know to be a physician, I did not appreciate how that learning would transform me.

Why did you chose your specialty?

Today, I am board certified in Internal Medicine, Critical Care Medicine and Infectious Diseases. I love my two subspecialities because they both require me to maintain knowledge in all of medicine. With critical care and infectious diseases, they are very intertwined, but they also are two subspecialities where any organ system can be affected at any time. I have the opportunity to think deeply but at times also very quickly. In both areas I am generally managing acute diseases with the opportunity to see rapid improvement in my patients, which is very gratifying.

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

Medicine is not an easy path. It takes work to earn and maintain your education, but it also takes work to take care of yourself and the non-medical portions of your life as medicine will penetrate all areas. It is not the same as another job where you can easily pivot to a different career. However, it can be one of the most gratifying careers and decisions in life. Do not choose your career based on prestige or salary. That will not sustain you. Choose what fulfills you. Choose what you are called to do but do not give all of yourself to medicine every day.

If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?

I do this often in my current position and what I tell students varies from person to person. But, in general, know that having a prestigious school or residency or career path may not be where you will find your greatest growth and happiness. Choose what fits you. Listen to your gut. And remember, you do not have to follow a given path or anyone else’s path. I did not. I decided what I wanted to do and went for it despite all the naysayers and critics. It is ok to be creative, to challenge the system and create the career you want.

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

Find a mentor, even one outside of your program, and ask for advice. I truly wish I would have had one who had been down a similar path to mine. Be persistent. Be great and demonstrate your capability even in the face of adversity. Specifically, ID/CCM is gaining more traction as a career path so it will not be hard to find training, the hard part may be finding the first job after training. For that mentors, and sponsors, can be incredibly helpful.

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