Wells LaRivière

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Wells found inspiration in his experience as a patient of polycystic kidney disease and receiving a kidney transplant at age 17.

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Undergraduate: Reed College (2010), University of Connecticut (2013)
Major: Political Science (Reed College), Molecular/Cell Bio (UConn)
Medical school: University of Colorado School of Medicine MSTP (MD-PhD program), expected 2023

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

As a young person, I was very strongly interested in serving my country through a career the military or law enforcement. During high school, I aspired to commission as an officer into the United States Marine Corps, but had to look into alternatives when I learned that I was medically disqualified from service.

I never considered medicine seriously until well after my 21st birthday, something that I am actually quite grateful for. While it was daunting returning to school to complete the pre-medical coursework, it was significantly easier to develop good study habits and a healthy work/life balance as an older student. Applying to medical school also felt easier as I had developed a mature and realistic vision of my prospective career, which came across positively during my interviews. Most importantly, I was secure in myself and felt better able to accept both success and failure than I would have as a younger student.

What led to your interest in medicine?

My relationship with medicine began when I was born with a very atypical presentation of polycystic kidney disease, for which I received a kidney transplant at the age of 17. I am lucky to have had many truly fantastic physicians care for me since birth. And over the course of my life they have inspired me to provide the same compassionate and vigilant care to others that they have provided for me.

I should note, however, that it took me many years to develop the maturity and perspective to realize my passion for medicine. I struggled with the gravity of my condition for much of my young life, which made it very difficult for me to envision a future of any kind--and certainly not one in which I spent more time in a hospital than absolutely necessary. It wasn’t until my senior year at Reed College that I found inspiration in my experience as a patient and decided to put that passion to use by pursuing a medical career. 

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

Besides my own experiences as a patient, the summer I spent shadowing the physicians in the section of Pediatric Nephrology at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) was easily the most formative experience of my pre-medical career. I had the great privilege to work with Dr. Sandra Iragorri, a pediatrician who had cared for me before and after my transplant at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital. I was able to spend substantial time shadowing her during both outpatient clinic hours and inpatient rounds, giving me a very good look at life at an academic medical center.

The experience enormously contextualized my own experience as a patient, and I left OHSU with a great deal of appreciation for the talent and dedication of the physicians, nurses and hospital staff who have cared for me since birth. Furthermore, it was during my time at OHSU that I felt my passion for medicine truly blossom. The experience taught me to appreciate that the disease I had long seen as a curse had ultimately given a profound sense of purpose to my life, and set me steadfast on my path to medical school. 

What made you decide to apply to medical school?

In addition to all of the experiences and influences described above, there was a pivotal moment in my last year at Reed that helped to awaken my desire to pursue medicine. During the fall of my senior year, myself and other students met with the faculty to discuss potential thesis topics. In the midst of our meeting, a professor exhorted us to select a thesis topic that we cared so deeply about that we would work tirelessly on it, even “during the darkest days of February,” to see through its completion.

With this advice in mind, I wrote my thesis on mental healthcare in the U.S. military, as I care deeply about our nation’s veterans. Motivated by my passion, I was able to put in an exceptional amount of work during the writing of my thesis and uncovered an academic potential that I previously never knew existed.

This prompted me to consider medicine more seriously, despite a fairly mediocre academic record. By the end of my senior year I knew there was little else that could motivate me quite like the opportunity to care for others as my physicians had cared for me. From then on I decided to let my passion take the lead, which has brought me to where I am today.

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

I received enormous support from my friends, family and mentors during my extended post-baccalaureate, pre-medical education, for which I am eternally grateful. However, I was also often heavily dissuaded from applying to medical school--and especially from applying to MD-PhD programs--due to my low cumulative GPA.

While the criticism was very discouraging, I grew from it and used it as fuel to improve my areas of weakness. In truth, I owe nearly as much of my success to my critics as I do my supporters. Without them, I would never have learned to dig in my heels and to strive for self-improvement; two skills that have proven essential in the past few years, and that will be undoubtedly useful in the years to come.

Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical school?

While I have been inspired by a great many people in my life, the person who stands out the most is my former pediatrician, Dr. Norman Siegel. As the founder of the section of Pediatric Nephrology at Yale and an accomplished researcher of renal ischemia, he still made time to head a thriving clinical practice that cared for me from birth. He was an amazing man of great empathy and warmth who offered to write a letter of recommendation for my college applications on the condition that I consider medical school.

At the time I thought the idea was completely preposterous, but in hindsight I have never received better advice. While he sadly passed away only a few months after my transplant, I like to think that he has been with me this whole time. My memories of him have set the standard for who I aspire to be as a physician, and I hope in time to live up to the magnanimous legacy that he has left behind.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

I was “lucky” to have applied twice, though I withdrew from the first application cycle when the NIH awarded me 2 years of funded research training at Mayo Clinic. It was very helpful to have already filled out the primary application once before I applied for the 2015 admissions cycle, as I was much more familiar with the application timeline and the things I needed to do in order to submit my application early. Do your homework on the process well before you apply!

I also benefitted enormously from the support of my peer mentors in the Mayo Clinic MSTP, Allyson Palmer and Andrew Harrison. Their help was indispensable in the writing of my applications and my preparation for interviews, and they provided me with invaluable emotional support over the length of the admissions cycle - perhaps their most important contribution of all.

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

The key to success on the MCAT is having a plan and executing it diligently. Start by buying a set of reputable review books, registering for the exam, and using a calendar to create a realistic study plan. The plan should include a complete review of the material followed by a thorough test of your ability via practice exams--I recommend around 3 months in total with an average of 90 minutes of studying per day.

Be sure to use the real practice exams provided by the AAMC to accurately simulate what the real exam will be like, and use the feedback they provide to address any deficiencies in both your knowledge of the material and your test-taking skills. Good luck!

What made your medical school the right fit for you?

I was very lucky to be accepted by MD-PhD programs whose medical and graduate schools are known for their collaborative and collegial academic environments; exactly what I was looking for as an applicant. While this made choosing between admissions offers rather difficult, it also meant that the admissions committees had thought carefully about how my personality would fit with their program and were as enthusiastic about me as I was about them. At the end of the day, I knew that I wouldn’t go wrong.

Ultimately, I chose the University of Colorado at Denver due to its location at the base of the beautiful Rocky Mountains and its strong institutional commitment to developing itself as both a medical and scientific university. The MSTP at U. Colorado allows its students a great deal of freedom and is committed to ensuring that its students enjoy a healthy work-life balance, something that I felt I would need to prioritize in order to survive 8 years of doctoral education.

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

As an MD-PhD student, I receive a full scholarship for tuition as well as a stipend and healthcare benefits for the duration of my education.

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

First, be sure medicine is right for you. A critical part of this is figuring out what is important to you and what it is you want in life. Not what job you want, or what you want your title to be, but what it is you want your life to consist of on a day-to-day basis and the different routes that can get you there.

There are plenty of other careers you could pursue after college. Why do you think medical school makes the most sense for you? To help you answer this question, spend as much time in a clinical environment as you can. Once you have identified a specific element of the medical profession that you find both interesting and motivating, move forward with confidence and enthusiasm. If you have a deep and well-informed desire to become a physician, this will shine through on your personal statement and during your interviews.

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

Follow what makes you truly you happy and do not waste your time doing something just because it might help you get into medical school. I know how inadequate the medical school applications process can make you feel, but I strongly believe that you should never compromise who you are just for something that you think you want. The pressure to be perfect doesn’t end once you get into medical school--learn to live with it now and never let it define your value as a human being.

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