Tiffany Chan

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Tiffany had a brain tumor removed during college. After a lot of hard work, she started medical school eight years later.

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Undergraduate: Georgetown University, 2006
Major: Psychology
Medical school: George Washington University School of Medicine, 2015

What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey? What led to your interest in medicine?

I have wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember. In college, I was pre-med and until that point I had the vague idea that I liked science and I figured it would be nice to help people too, so being a doctor seemed like a good idea.

When I was a sophomore in college, supposedly the picture of good health, I noticed strange muscle clenching in my right hand that would start and then remit after about a minute. I saw my primary care doctor and probably described my symptoms poorly. She told me I was drinking too much coffee and was jittery from that. These episodes continued and worsened to the point of including my right leg and jaw in the clenching and relaxing episodes.

I was still pre-med at that point and was particularly interested in neuroscience. In one of my classes, I read about something I had never heard about before called “simple partial seizures.” My symptoms read like the textbook. I went back to my doctor and asked for a referral to a neurologist. I got an MRI. They found a brain tumor in my left inferior temporal lobe. They took it out two weeks later.

After the surgery, I couldn’t remember my phone number. I couldn’t remember half of my friends’ names. What I could and couldn’t remember had no pattern. What was obvious was that I had no working memory. I could read a sentence but by the time I got to the end of it, I couldn’t remember what the beginning was about. I was perpetually confused by movies. Commercials were the best to watch because I could still remember the product by the time the punch line came. I did know, however, that I could not finish my last quarter of organic chemistry.

I was burdened with being well enough to understand the enormity of this disability while also not being well enough to regain the function I had lost. So I went and did other things.

I changed my major to psychology and finished undergrad. I worked in public relations, a field where I could network and pitch stories without really having to memorize anything. All the while, I longed to get back onto the pre-med track. So, outside of work, I read as much as I could, circled words I didn’t remember and looked up definitions. I started learning Spanish. Anything to exercise my memory, I tried to do.

Then, when I felt ready, I started taking post-baccalaureate classes at San Francisco State.  I applied to medical school and started at George Washington the fall of 2011, eight years after my surgery.

What is medical school like?

Medical school is simultaneously wonderful, terrifying, exhilarating, and draining. The first two years are grueling—these are spent in the classroom learning all the material needed for your clinical work for the following two years. I remember thinking that I wanted a career that would keep me out of a desk cubicle when, in fact, I had never spent so much time in a cubicle in my life.

I’m in my third year now and I can say with certainty that this is exactly what I hoped for. Patients are fascinating people, each with his or her special story and we have the privilege of learning about them. The material that we study never gets boring and the skills that we learn never lose their utility.

What surprised you about medicine?

What people often don’t realize about medicine are the endless opportunities it offers. There really is a place for everyone in the field.

It not only has different specialties, beyond that there is even more space to really hone your interest in topics that range from medical humanities to research to ethics to public health. You can spend your time in a lab, in a clinic, in front of a classroom, or doing medical work abroad. Within the field, anyone can find his or her niche.

Advice to applicants

My advice to those considering a career in medicine: go for it. I am also a firm believer that if you want to go to medical school, there will always be a way to get there.

If you have immediate challenges, take your time to figure out a strategy for applying to medical school. Find someone who will mentor you. Volunteer—in soup kitchens, building houses, tutoring, shelters—because it will make you better at caring for others, even if it’s not in a medical capacity.

The field of medicine is one where someone thrives from their past experiences, even if they seem like obstacles at first. If you’re a parent, you will intuitively know a sick pediatric patient when you see one. If you’re changing careers, you have built a good work ethic and are comfortable working on teams.

As a “nontraditional” applicant, you have done other things—you should build on these experiences during your training. Some people, like me, know hospitals like they know their own homes and feel comfortable in the setting. We remember the small words and gestures of our own doctors that have been so meaningful to us. All these challenges make us who we are, and make us better equipped to care for others as physicians.

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