Leslie Pensa

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Leslie was diagnosed with ADHD during her first year of medical school and wants to remind others to never be afraid to ask for help.

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Undergraduate: University of Alabama at Birmingham, 2014
Major: Chemistry

Medical school: University of Alabama School of Medicine, 2019

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

There were so many times throughout my premedical career that I would hear things like: “If you take the MCAT more than once, you won’t get accepted anywhere,” or “If you don’t have a GPA of 3.9 or higher, you won’t get interviews.” These myths perpetuate within the premed culture, online blogs/forums, and inside the minds of aspiring medical students. There is this false belief that you have to be a perfect person without blemish to gain acceptance into the medical community. I wish I would have realized then how important individuality is to admission committees. It’s not about being flawless, it’s about finding well-rounded students that have learned from their mistakes, are truly passionate about the things on their resumes, and can maintain humility and kindness toward others. These are the types of people who become great physicians, and these are the type of applicants medical schools are looking to accept.

What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?

I really struggled my first semester of medical school. I was studying all the time, but was still doing poorly academically. I had always found it difficult to get through material in a timely manner throughout school, even as early as grade school, but I had always somehow managed to persevere through it. But medical school is different. It is its own unique beast, and I ultimately failed the semester in just a few short months. At the prompting of my medical school, I underwent a formal evaluation for ADHD and was diagnosed within the month. Suddenly it was all very clear – why I never knew where my car keys were, why I had never been able to sit through an entire movie, and the reason I was late getting into bed each night. I just never realized that I had been compensating all through the years. While it took me much longer to study and memorize material, I had always had the drive, ambition, and time to  put forth more effort and push through my challenges. However, the luxury of time does not exist in medical school. There’s not enough time in the day to just study harder; everyone studies hard and roughly the same amount. Simply put, for me, there was just not enough time in the day to accomplish all of the demands of the curriculum. Once I realized that my main issue was ADHD, I registered with Disability Support Services and received ADHD coaching from a counselor. Together, we found creative ways to combat my attention deficits. I tried out these new tactics when I enrolled in the MD/MPH program offered at UAB that January. Some of the many strategies I employed were using a wobble seat cushion during lectures with long periods of sitting, taking scheduled study breaks by setting timers, and making a five hour minimum sleep rule. When I rematriculated into medical school that July, I was equipped to successfully tackle the medical curriculum while simultaneously completing my Master’s in Public Health.

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

I have spent the majority of my time outside of studying and family working in medical student advocacy and well-being. My time away from the medical curriculum made me very aware of the stigma and shame of failing. So when I rematriculated in the fall of 2015, I decided to use my story as a platform for change. With the help of some of my classmates who also took leave, we developed Detour. As the name implies, Detour is a student interest group that assists students through the academic and/or personal challenges that have led them to detour from the typical four year trajectory. United in our struggles, we fight stigma and empower all students to find strength in adversity. Detour has a fantastic working relationship with our institution’s Medical Student Services (MSS). We work very closely with the staff to recruit speakers to provide seminars on topics such as burnout, coping with stress, and resiliency. We also have collaborative meetings with our administration where we discuss ways by which our school could better meet the needs of academically high risk students. Recently, with the support of MSS, I, along with a fellow Detour co-founder, Alex Edgil, presented a poster at an AAMC conference where we showcased our work in creating Detour and the ways by which student groups like Detour can enrich and enhance medical student wellness at any medical school.  In taking such a proactive stance, Detour has helped shed light on a very vulnerable student population and has improved and enhanced student well-being at our institution.

What surprised you the most about medical school?

I’ve been surprised at the number of people who take a detour during their medical education. Many people take a personal, medical, or family leave of absence, take an additional year for research or a Masters, or experience academic challenges and have to repeat a year. There can be a lot of stigma about taking a path that deviates from the traditional four-year plan, irrespective of the reasons. But I’ve also been happily surprised to find that my classmates and colleagues are usually quite considerate and kind toward those of us that have a unique story. Most recognize the sacrifices that we all make in order to live out our dreams of becoming physicians and can quickly and easily see past our differences.

Why did you chose your specialty?

I chose internal medicine for many reasons. For starters, I love the attention to detail required. In this field, it’s of utmost importance to consider every side of the story before making a decision or arriving at a conclusion. I also very much value the level of collaboration.  Internists tend to appreciate and value the input of others and work well in tandem with colleagues in various fields. I am also drawn to it because of the relationships formed with both the patient and his/her support system. I feel fortunate when I can help improve my patients’ health so that they can return to their community of friends and family as a healthier version of themselves. These are just a few of the multitude of reasons why I chose this specific path, and I am incredibly excited for the journey!

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

Never be afraid to ask for help. Whether it’s meeting with a professor to go over a concept you don’t fully understand, seeking mental health counseling during a rough season of life, or just admitting your imperfections to yourself and others so you have a network of support – don’t let pride or fear stand between you and the support you need. It’s much easier to reach out before a larger problem arises rather than having to explain yourself afterwards when something derails.

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