Emily Hayward

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Emily battled viral encephalitis for years during college, and now as a MD/PhD student, she reminds premeds that it's okay to ask for help.

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Undergraduate: Rhodes College, 2016
Major: Biochemistry & Molecular Biology (Minor: English)
Medical school: University of Alabama at Birmingham
I am an MD/PhD student in the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), so my anticipated graduation year with the dual-degree is 2024.

What obstacles did you overcome in your journey to medicine? What makes your story unique?

In 2012, my plans were all coming together. My dream was to be a pediatric oncologist, and I had recently begun my first year at Rhodes College, just down the street from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I was thriving in my classes, and I loved my new city.

Everything changed when I grew sick in early 2013. It was gradual, at first. I had repeated bouts of what seemed like a minor but very annoying cold: sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, and a low-grade fever. As the months dragged on, however, my fatigue deepened and I began to notice cognitive deficits. I lost the ability to comprehend basic words, no matter how many times I re-read them or asked people to repeat them. I suffered from anterograde amnesia. I was frequently disoriented, struggling to process the meaning of a hot stove while cooking or a red light while driving. I developed some weakness and paralysis down my left side.

I knew something was wrong, but at the same time, I was so tired and so confused that I couldn’t process just how much I was tired and confused. It would be months before I saw a doctor and years before we made any progress in understanding what had happened. We eventually realized that I had probably contracted a virus just before I turned 19, likely from something minor like touching a door handle or using the dorm bathrooms. That virus had unfortunately traveled to my brain, causing swelling known as encephalitis.

In the first semester of my sophomore year, at my sickest, I had to drop a class to lessen my load. Otherwise, I was able to continue towards my medical school dreams as planned, but it was a brutal fight. I often slept 20+ hours per day, taking naps in between every single activity even if that activity was simply taking a shower or eating lunch. I attended my classes, but I was a mere body in a chair. It felt like my professors were speaking gibberish. I could hear the friendly conversations of my peers around me, but I didn’t have the energy or ability to grasp onto their words; I spoke only when absolutely necessary. On occasion, as I stared blankly ahead, I would catch myself drooling.

My recovery was slow, but fortunately, it was extraordinary. By the time I applied to medical school, my overall health was strong. I still had some residual impacts of my illness, but unless I specifically told people I was recovering from viral encephalitis, they never would have known just how sick I had been.

Now, at age 23, I still want to be a pediatric oncologist. Yet I have begun to understand that the kind of healing a physician can provide extends far beyond finding cures – and even when there are diseases that may never be cured, there will still be a patient for whom I can advocate. While I would never wish for my illness experience, I have been fortunate to emerge from it with a re-invigorated drive and passion to walk alongside my patients on their journey towards their health goals.

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

My first dreams were admittedly a little infeasible: I was convinced, in my early elementary days, that I would be a professional soccer player and a professional actress, at the same time. While I laugh about this today, I also remember the real devastation I felt every time I told people and they glanced at me as if to say that was impossible. It was the same look I often received when I said in all seriousness, at the age of 12, that I was going to be a pediatric oncologist, or at age 15 when I said I was going to work at St. Jude someday, or at age 17 when I said I would be the first in my family to leave Michigan to attend college. I knew from the beginning that reaching my dreams would be tough. I also knew that what mattered most was my own effort: I could always put in 110%, and it would always be worth trying. I was very fortunate to have the support of many mentors over the years, each of whom helped make the things I once only pictured in my wildest dreams at age 12 become a reality.

What led to your interest in medicine?

My decision to pursue medicine could be likened to a puzzle. There were many small moments where I learned something about myself or about my goals. I began to assemble these pieces together over the years, seeing more of the big picture – my dream to be a physician – each time. From the beginning, I knew that I had a strong desire to use my life in a way that would create something meaningful for someone else. I quickly began to realize that my niche might involve working with children, as I loved the energy and joy that they exude about things we tend to take for granted. Over the years, I found that my own strengths made me particularly able to help kids in a moment of crisis, from the more lighthearted, “Johnny stole my crayon” catastrophe to the sometimes serious cuts or bruises that kids experience. I had a strong desire to comfort those children, even if it was by distracting them with a silly dance. As I entered middle school, I realized that I wanted to soak up all of the information I could and that I was especially fascinated by science. It was extraordinary to learn how the human body works and to see how we each grow and thrive. As I put the pieces together, I realized that a career in medicine could allow me to use my strengths to help others live as well as possible, to manage their health goals, and to know that they are never walking through a tough journey alone.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

While I was able to keep my GPA high throughout college, I knew that my MCAT was on the weaker side for virtually all MD/PhD programs. I had never done exceptionally well on standardized tests, but this time, I had also taken most of my college classes while suffering from memory loss. When I went to study for the MCAT, it was often like seeing the information for the first time. It was overwhelming, and I knew that my score would make the application process an uphill climb. I tried to be honest about my chances and to apply with a smart strategy in place so I could put forward the best version of myself. I spoke with many mentors at Rhodes and thoroughly researched each of the schools to which I applied. I wrote multiple drafts of my personal statement and had others read it to determine if it conveyed the message I had hoped. I submitted my application very early and practiced my interviewing skills so that I would be as prepared as possible.

Perhaps above all, I worked my hardest to keep my perspective in check. The application process is long, and it can be grueling. I found that it was best if I did not have any expectations for how it would go, and if I simply tried my hardest while treating those around me with empathy and grace. I also tried to genuinely cheer for my peers; we were all working towards the same goal, and it was thrilling to watch others get an interview or acceptance that they had likewise dreamed of for years. I made sure I was not clouded with jealousy and instead just reminded myself that future patients would benefit from the dedication and success of my classmates. By the end, I was part of a large group of students who were constantly cheering for each other, and we celebrated in so many successes that year. It definitely made the hard times better!

Did you have any fears going into medical school?

I was excited, yet terrified, to begin medical school. I couldn’t wait to start a new life in a new city, one where I envisioned that I would be much healthier than in the last. But I recognized it would be a big change. I had never set foot in Alabama before, and I would have to leave the incredible network of support that I had formed while at Rhodes College. I knew I would be joining an amazing program where I would find new mentors and friends – but that could take time, and adjusting to a new city while trying to reassemble my life after losing so much seemed daunting. Still, I was humbled and grateful beyond belief that I would have the opportunity to try.

How did you prepare for medical school before your first day?

As an MD/PhD student, I had to arrive to UAB a few months earlier than traditional MD students so that I could begin doing summer research. After I graduated from college on May 14, 2016, I moved to Birmingham the very next day. My health was generally very stable at the time, but the first thing I wanted to do at my new school was to establish safety nets just in case things took a turn or I had a flare-up. This meant that in my first few weeks at UAB, I made appointments with the MSTP director and manager, disability services, and an office on campus designed to confidentially oversee the health and resources available to medical professionals.

What was your meeting with your MD/PhD program officials like?

Today, I would say that the most important meeting I set up was with my program director. She had encountered a few students with backgrounds similar to mine over the years, and she was able to advise me on ways to make my journey a bit smoother. Perhaps most importantly, however, our meeting helped ensure that we were both on the same page. I felt confident that if I faced any difficulties down the road, my program director would be able to help give me a voice or just a safe place to turn because she was aware of my intentions and my situation. The meeting provided me with structural plan to manage a challenging dual-degree program, but above all, it was the first time I felt like I wasn’t alone in this new city and that I was part of a program that would stand behind me as long as I gave my best effort. Having the support of the UAB MSTP has made all of the difference in my medical school experience.

What types of services did you request from disability services?

I also met early on with the disability services office on campus. At the time, I wasn’t fully aware of the services I should request or even if I would ever use them, but I wanted to make sure I documented everything. The equivalent disability office at my undergraduate institution was wonderful, and they helped me understand some accommodations that could be useful for me. Thus, when I arrived at UAB, I primarily asked for the flexibility to miss a mandatory class or two as needed if I was sick. Of course, really, all students have this ability – but typically, you have to visit the doctor for an excuse note. My hope was to pre-document my health journey so that this visit could be avoided for the benefit of both my health and the physician’s time/resources. This provision is known at UAB as a “reasonable number of disability-related absences.” I also tried to facilitate conversation between the disability office and the medical school and asked everyone to share their ideas so we could work as a unified team with the goal of being proactive about my health.

How did you choose where to apply to medical school?

As I was applying for MD/PhD programs, I found that there were two things that mattered most to me: research opportunities and lifestyle. I first narrowed my list down by searching for programs that had strong comprehensive cancer centers and many potential lab mentors. I then continued to tighten my list by location, carefully selecting schools in areas where I felt I could thrive for the next 7 or 8 years. Specifically, it was my dream to live in a city where I could buy or rent a small house of my own without roommates (at least initially) so that I could rest as needed and have a place to recharge after long clinic days. The final step in my process was to make sure that I was realistic with my chances of acceptance based on my GPA and MCAT score. The general rule I followed was to apply to approximately 15 schools, with five “dream” or “long-shot” schools, five schools where my scores fit the average range (“target” schools) and then five programs where my scores fell above their average (sometimes called “safety” schools, although I quickly learned that nothing in the medical admissions process is safe or guaranteed!).

When did you begin to think UAB might be a good fit for you?

From my very first attempts to narrow down my school list, UAB always stood out. The website seemed transparent, and administration made it clear that we could ask questions of them at any time. They were the only program that sent me unprompted updates about admission on their end and who let me know where my application stood. They also had a student blog, UnABridged, that helped me get a unique glimpse of who the current students were and what Birmingham was like. I began to have the real sense that they cared about me as a person, not just as a test score or a GPA that could benefit the program.

What was your first real impression of the program?

I first met the UAB MSTP program director and program manager at the Southeastern Medical Scientist Symposium (SEMSS), a conference co-hosted by the MSTPs of Vanderbilt, Emory, and UAB. I was a senior in college who had applied to all three programs, so I was eager to learn more about them and to present my work alongside their current students. While every program official I met at SEMSS was incredibly kind, the UAB director went above and beyond. She had written down the names and presentation times of every single student who had applied to her program. Even though there were something like 27 of us there that day, she made sure that she and/or current UAB students stopped by every single one of our posters to give us a few minutes to share our work. That spoke volumes to me.

What was your interview at UAB like, and how did it influence your decision process?

The entire interview was enjoyable, and the current students were kind. One of my tasks was to give a “chalk talk” about my research to the MSTP Advisory Committee. While this seemed intimidating at first, it was quickly clear that the committee was genuinely interested in my work. When I grew excited about my findings, so did they, and the questions they asked were kind-spirited rather than anything intended to “grill” or trick me. Overall, the program felt close-knit, and administration seemed to truly care about each student both personally and professionally. Additionally, I knew I would live in the city I chose for about eight years and maybe even start a family there someday, and Birmingham seemed like the perfect place for me. Almost two years later, not a day goes by where I do not stop to smile about how fortunate I am to have been selected for this program and to have such incredible peers and mentors within the UAB MSTP.

What memory stands out the most from your first day of medical school?

I was nervous. I wondered how I would make small talk when I had missed out on years of living, or what I would tell people when they asked about college. I decided to take a risk and disclose parts of my story to a small group of people during our orientation. Before I knew it, I had been “volunteered” to share my story on the larger stage, and I found a microphone in my trembling hand. After I spoke, the orientation leaders gave each of us tiny pieces of string to share with other students to convey the message “I’m glad you’re here.” The support was overwhelming, and I walked out of the room that day with my fingers, binders, and even my glasses covered in string. I had perhaps never felt so fully embraced, and I could not wait to reciprocate the gesture to my classmates in the coming years.

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?

Medical school has taught me that every human has limits, and that acknowledging these limits is a sign of maturity, not of weakness. I now understand that if am not careful about my own health and if I do not properly allow myself occasional personal time as needed, it is my patients who will suffer in the end – and that is not something I am willing to accept. Thus, it is important for me to carve out some separate time in my day or in my week to reflect on how I am doing, to celebrate the times when I have succeeded, or simply to spend a few minutes with friends or family to recharge. These moments of perspective do not have to be time-consuming, but the renewed passion and mental energy I have gained from them have more than paid off in allowing me to avoid burnout and to advocate for my patients with the strongest mind or wisdom possible.

What do you enjoy most about medical school?

It has been such a gift to be one step further in my role as a medical professional. Much of high school and college involved learning the foundations of biology and science, and this is certainly vital. Yet to finally be at the stage where I am learning about healthcare and integrating that with powerful encounters with patients has been a dream come true.

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

Please know that your journey into medicine may not always be easy, and you may need to take conscious moments to remind yourself of why you are on this path. Spend time with real-life patients. Know that tests will come and go, and one score will never define you – but one encounter with someone can always change two lives. Take the time to learn beyond the textbooks and to serve others in any way you can.

Please know that the purpose of going into medicine is to benefit patients, and that must always be your central goal. The road to medical school is competitive, and you may feel compelled to be involved in every activity out there. However, I cannot overstress the importance of avoiding this trap: do not engage in activities simply to check off a box. You will find yourself becoming disenchanted with the profession, and those around you or even those whom you intend to serve will feel that you are not fully present in the moment. This does more harm than good. Never allow time with patients to become an obligation or a tool for you to build your own resume.

Please know that in times when you may fall short, these failures do not mean you are a failure. Realize that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Your strengths may be different than others, but that is what makes our profession diverse and beautiful. Try to avoid comparing yourself to your peers. As a future physician, it will be crucial for you to find resources to compensate for your weaknesses while also learning to develop your strengths. No one is perfect, but if you are true to yourself, you will likely find a unique niche you can occupy to become an extraordinary physician.

Finally: please know that if you are struggling, it is more than okay to ask for help. Identify mentors early, and establish plans or safety nets to which you can turn in times when you feel overwhelmed. I have found that only with the help of others can you truly live by my favorite mantra – get knocked down four times; stand up five.

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