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Shea Poynter

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Shea was inspired by her incredible physician, who also became her research mentor, to study medicine.

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Shea Poynter

Undergraduate: University of Kentucky, 2005
Medical school: University of Kentucky, 2013

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

I never knew what I wanted to be.  I changed my mind all the time.  Becoming a doctor wasn’t something I was particularly interested in until my senior year of high school.

What led to your interest in medicine?

I was fascinated by the social dynamic.  Everyone is going to experience trials in their life, and they need support in that time. 

I realized this after watching my grandfather die at home from lung cancer. I was eleven at the time. 

I started to realize that being a doctor is an opportunity to be an ambassador to those who are vulnerable and need help outside of themselves. Someone that a person could trust and expect to be knowledgeable and caring. 

Who or what inspired you?

Both good experiences and bad experiences in my own medical care inspired me. 

When I was a nineteen, I started experiencing bizarre symptoms that several health care providers couldn’t figure out.  Then one physician listened and searched until she figured out the answers. Because of her care, I was able to escape the excruciating physical pain that came out of nowhere. Turns out I was having multiple flares of a drug-induced vasculitis (an inflammation of the blood vessels caused by a prescribed medication I was taking).

What was most impressive was her spirit as she worked together with me to find answers. I recognized how powerful a doctor can be in someone’s life.  She went on to become my research mentor for the first research project I designed and later she became the first preceptor in my medical education. 

Bad experiences with health care professionals also drove me to this career:

  • The doctor who told me it was my grandfather’s fault he was dead—he shouldn’t have smoked—and did I smoke?  
  • The doctor who fussed at me for being an overweight hyperthyroid patient and said nothing to encourage me when I started losing weight, except that I needed to lose more. 
  • The doctor who physically moved my face with his hand when I didn’t hear and understand his instructions for a specific procedure. 

Now, as I go through medical training, I realize that we all have less-than-glamorous moments, but I try to remember that having a bad moment with a patient may be the only moment you get with her and a harsh or careless gesture from the doctor can be unforgettable.

What made you decide to go to medical school?

I wasn’t entirely certain I was cut out for medical school.  I knew how to study and what it was like to be a patient, but I had a lot of insecurity about this great unknown. 

Ultimately, I decided that I had to try because never knowing would haunt me.  I had plenty of reasons to go to medical school; it was fear that was holding me back. 

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

Yes, both. When I was feeling insecure about being successful in medical school, a couple of high school teachers fostered my interest in medicine. 

But I can also still hear in my mind a family member telling me that I couldn’t be a doctor, because, “You don’t have the connections or know the right people.  You’re too far behind to get what you need to go to medical school.  You can’t do it.”

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

Encouraging people helped me figure out what I needed to do, and I set out to accomplish it.  That included shadowing, making the grades, doing research, etc. 

When I felt weak in an area, I set out to strengthen it.  I used the people I knew and the resources available on my undergraduate campus to find these opportunities. 

Doing research was perhaps the biggest perceived obstacle.  I had no research experience in high school and let’s just say using a Bunsen burner in general chemistry was something the flame-averse in me was concerned about…so how in the world could I do research when I didn’t have any knowledge of what it took to be a researcher? 

I worked through my fears and came to enjoy working in a lab while in general and organic chemistry. Then I actually sought a research position.  I found the list of mentors my department kept, sent a few emails to those whose projects looked interesting, and set up a meeting to discuss the research. 

I ended up spending two years in a lab, even training the student that took my place. (She started her first year of medical school as an M.D./Ph.D. student this past fall). 

Did you need financial aid to pay for medical school?

Absolutely.  The cost of attending medical school for one year is more than my entire family lived on in a year. 

I did receive a scholarship but the rest of my medical education and living expenses are covered by federal loans and a stipend I receive through my research.

Do you remember your first day of medical school? What memory stands out the most?

I remember being uncertain about how I would handle the anatomy lab, and mentally coaching myself through the experience.  My team worked together to flip the cadaver to a prone position, make the first incision, and start looking through the atlas…and I was hooked. 

Part of the reason I came to medical school was to gain knowledge about the human body in all its forms, and I felt like I was finally embarking on my grand journey to becoming someone I had only imagined—I was finally moving from possibly going to medical school to actually training to be a doctor.

What was your first year of medical school like?

Honestly, it was difficult. Not because of the material, but because of the personal health concerns that were distracting me from focusing on being a good student. It was seven months of medical school—and a bout of acute thyrotoxicosis later—before  things started to return to normal. 

Much to my dismay, I broke down crying during my slotted time of office hours with my anatomy professor a few months into medical school.  He listened in that moment as I spilled out things I’d kept hidden from administration and my professors: I was physically ill and it was affecting my mental health and my ability to focus on school. 

He recommended I speak with the Dean of Student Affairs.  In fact, he went so far as to contact her himself because he knew I was resistant to the idea of seeking help (after all, weeping in his office was involuntary…I would have likely continued to hide my problems). 

While I was uncomfortable with discussing my personal health with medical school administrators and faculty, they became a crucial part in keeping me in school and on track. 

What makes your story unique?

I grew up as the fourth child (of six) on a farm in Kentucky knowing nothing about research and very little about medicine, except what I learned as a patient.  In seven years since leaving my hometown, I’ve traveled to two other continents, participated in numerous research projects (being the principal investigator on a few of those), earned two degrees and started two others, and I’ve been a patient for all that time, most especially during my time as a medical student. 

How did you balance the demands of medical school with these additional obligations and challenges?

Ultimately, you decide how your time is spent.  Early in medical school, I spent a lot of time worrying if I was devoting as much time to my schoolwork as others. 

But I realized that nobody else had my life and everyone does things differently. Sometimes you have to sacrifice, but I did things in order of importance to me. 

What surprised you the most about medical school?

That it isn’t the sum total of my existence.  I heard horror stories about losing my life to the drudgery of medical school.  That certainly has not been my experience. 

Please describe your participation in special programs such as volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.

I spend a lot of time doing research and working on medical education projects.  I find my work fulfilling and it enriches my medical school experience.  That being said, sometimes it’s difficult to manage all the hats. 

I would advise someone to hold off on becoming involved the first several months at the beginning of medical school (learn the system first!), take a good look at where you might want to spend your time, and remember to leave some space for future opportunities later in the year or in subsequent years of medical school. 

Don’t do something solely because you think it would look good on your residency application.

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

A good friend of mine, in my class, failed to get into medical school for several years.  When he did get in, he became one of the top students in the class.  He is an amazing individual—driven and determined to be what his patients need.  

In some ways, going to medical school is a fresh start: past setbacks can’t dictate where you will go and past successes won’t always carry you through.  Consider what you want out of the experience and life and don’t be afraid to change. 

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

When you start to freak out, go sit down and breathe for a few minutes, then come back to it. 

Don’t expect to know everything about yourself even though you’re making big life decisions.  Remember what’s most important to you and find a way to stay in touch with that; some days will be easier than others. 

If things start to get out of control—academically, personally, physically—seek help from trustworthy individuals; you don’t have to do this alone.

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