Ariel Dempsey

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After a brain injury and terminal diagnosis, Ariel decided to still go to medical school. Now she's in her second year.

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Undergraduate: University of Michigan Honors College, 2014
Major: Christian Apologetics
Medical school: Michigan State College of Human Medicine, 2019

What is your story?

A year and a half ago I was bed-bound in a dark room with a traumatic brain injury and only dreamed of the life that I get to live today.

In January of 2015, I was swing dancing with my brother and, when he tossed me into the air for a flip, our hands slipped and I fell headfirst onto concrete. Though I suffered a concussion, a week later I interviewed for medical school and left for England to continue my studies in theology at the University of Oxford. During the flight across the Atlantic, I suddenly experienced extreme vertigo and weakness. When I tried to rise, I fell to the floor. For eight hours, I drifted in and out of consciousness and became cyanotic---even to the point that my nails fell off due to lack of oxygen. For the next four months, I lay bed-bound in a dark room in England, wearing sunglasses to make the room darker. I had autonomic dysfunction, Brown’s Sequard syndrome, loss of word recognition, and persistent, unbearable vertigo. I had been a collegiate athlete, but now could barely rise from bed. As awful as this was, the information I received through the course of the medical workup was worse. I was diagnosed with a bleed in core of my brain. My English neurosurgeon told me that the expected course was recurrent re-bleeding, leading to progressive deterioration over the next few years.  Or instant death, at any time.

As I grieved and reflected, I realized that, in a strange way, I wasn’t in a situation that different from everyone else. Loss of cognitive abilities and physical abilities, is not rare, but happens to anyone who lives long enough. Yes, I could die any day, but so could anyone. No one knows when they are going to die. It’s like my life is a play and I don’t know what act I am in. The curtain may come up at any moment, and the important thing is that I am playing my part well when I am called home.

With that in mind, even though I could hardly stay awake for five hours a day, could barely walk because of vertigo, couldn’t read for more than ten minutes, and didn’t know how long I had left to live, I decided to keep my medical school acceptance. After four months of complete darkness, I was finally strong enough to return to the States and see my family. In the spring, the doctors in America gave me a more hopeful prognosis and by the time of matriculation, I was making a rapid recovery. By God’s grace, I started medical school last fall.

Over the last year, I’ve continued to grow stronger and, though there are still challenges, I completed my first year of medical school. I also developed other “abilities” through my disabilities. To regain strength, I trained in rock climbing and now vacation by lead climbing hundred foot walls in Kentucky and Arkansas. To improve coordination, I played on a soccer team. To combat my vertigo, I learned Aerial Silks and now perform part-time with a local circus. That being said, there are days that I am leveled from the old brain injury. I still live with the uncertainty about what will happen in the future. But I learned best how to live from my college roommate. I had the privilege of caring for her during her battle with terminal brain cancer and watching her gave me a vision for strength and beauty when I faced my own suffering.

As I look ahead at the uncertainty, I remind myself of a prayer from St. Francis de Sales: “Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow. The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.”

Who or what inspired you?

My father and mother are my inspiration. They are Family Medicine physicians and incredible people. It was hearing their stories from the office, watching them care for my friends and family, meeting the people whose lives they had changed and, above all, by witnessing their life and love that made me want to pursue a career in medicine.

What specialty are you considering?

I have not yet chosen my area of specialty but am drawn towards specialties in which I can develop long-term relationships with my patients and their families. I aspire to be a physician with expertise in philosophical theology and serve as a facilitator between communities deeply committed to science and communities deeply committed to faith.

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

The person who discouraged me most from applying to medical school was myself. When I was jumping through the pre-med hurdles, I often dreaded the list of things I had to do. At times, the fact I didn’t want to do them made me doubt if I really wanted to go to medical school. Then I remembered I was going to be a doctor and not a professional pre-med student so it was okay if I didn’t like the pre-med process.

I also questioned whether I should accept the offer to attend medical school. In the back of my mind, there was the question, “If I die in the next four years will I feel like I wasted it studying?” But, isn’t this a question that every medical student could ask? Rather than seeing medical school as an interruption of my life, I saw it as something that augments my life. I don’t reduce it as a means to end but embrace it as a process of molding that enables me to be more generous and loving.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

If I were to give advice to aspiring medical students about how to prepare for medical school applications, I would tell them to do the things they love, even if they have yet to see the way in which they connect with medicine.

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

Practice exams are far more useful than just studying material alone. The MCAT is not about memorizing material but it is about working through problems when you don’t know all the information.

What was your first year of medical school like?

Imagine you are playing a sport. If the level of play is too easy you are bored; however, if it is too hard you are overwhelmed or discouraged. Flow is the balance that happens when things are challenging enough that you have to try your best but not so challenging that it is overwhelming. For me, medical school is a flow.

Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities during medical school.

I expected that I wouldn’t have a life outside of medical school. But this was not the case at all. During my first year of medical school I studied ancient Greek language, played on two men’s soccer teams, rock climbed in Kentucky, Arkansas and Arizona, swing danced, snowboarded, played on a volleyball league, learned acroyoga and performed aerial silks with a local circus. Medical school is intense but there is a rhythm to it. I kept good grades and still found time to do things I love—work was an extension of play, play was an extension of work and, for me, both were an extension of worship.

Did you have any fears going into medical school?

I feared the constancy of the pressure and stress in medical school. Then I wondered, what if medical school is something like yoga? In yoga, you stretch yourself and the pull of the stretch is constant. You are aware of the tension and the pressure but it does not bring distress. Instead, it brings peace and release. You breathe through it. Likewise, in medical school, though you are aware of the tension and the pressure it doesn’t have to be stressful. Yes, there is the constant pull of exams, deadlines, expectations, and long weeks with uncountable cups of coffee, but, as in yoga, being under pressure isn’t exclusive to being at peace. You breathe through it.

What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?

These two perspectives helped me deal with the stress: The first came from Thomas Aquinas, “If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.” If the highest aim of God was my comfort, he would leave me in port. The goal is not my comfort, instead God is sailing me out across an ocean of medical school. The second is from GK Chesterton: “Inconveniences are adventures wrongly considered.” I often laugh to myself thinking, “Medical school is quite the adventure.”

Did you have to change any of your study habits?

I completely changed the way that I studied and developed a more efficient system. I partnered up with a friend and we worked through the material together--I would learn half the exam material and teach them the important points while they would learn the other half and teach me the parts likely to be tested. Not only did it work, but it worked extremely well, and on top of that, it was actually a lot of fun.

What did you enjoy most about medical school?

When people ask me, how did you like first year of medical school, I answer, “I absolutely loved it. I’m grateful to God that I am able to do the things I am doing because I didn’t know if was going to be able to do them.” I praise God for all of this which what might not have been, and I delight in it.

What surprised you the most about medical school?

I enjoyed medical school much more than undergraduate because I showed more grace to myself. There were a lot of times that I didn’t feel well and couldn’t study so instead of pushing through (as I would have in the past) I had to be gentle with myself and rest. I physically couldn’t stay up late studying, so while some of my classmates pulled all-nighters, I found peace in knowing that I had prepared the best I could, trusted the test to God and went to bed. The irony is that the thing I feared most about medical school was feeling trapped and often prayed that I wouldn’t feel trapped in medical school. Then, God showed me what it REALLY was to be trapped when I was bedbound in that dark room in England for four months. Now, even the most difficult days of medical school feel like freedom.

What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?

I knew that medical school would be very difficult place to be the year after a brain injury and terminal diagnosis but I wasn’t prepared for how emotionally difficult it was. Every day I was surrounded by things that triggered memories of the grief— the cadaver lab, a lecture on brain bleeds, a patient with a terminal diagnosis, a day when my symptoms worsen. I held close to the image of Christ as a Wounded Healer and often prayed in tears, “Lord, I hate these wounds but I’ve got them. Please use them for some good effect as you did the wounds of Christ. Amen”

What made your medical school the right fit for you?

Michigan State University College of Human Medicine was incredibly supportive. The Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities helped me find creative ways to work around my disabilities and a number of MSU CHM staff members walked alongside me and blessed me with their encouragement. I’m very grateful for all of the grace MSU CHM gave to me.

If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell about what medical school will be like?

If a potential medical student asked me, “What will medical school be like?” I would say, “Medical school will be whatever you make it.”

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