“Why did I agree to do this?” I thought as I made the thirty-mile drive to my destination on the morning of November 8th, 2016. My GPS led me to a run-down house with overgrown grass that hadn’t been cut in months. Standing on the front porch was a frail woman holding a cane in one hand and a cushion in the other. She gingerly walked to my car, smiled, and said “Thank you so much, you have no idea how much this means to me.” Her name was Leila, and she was the first patient I transported to cancer treatment as a volunteer with the Tennessee Road to Recovery Program. The anxiety I had felt from not knowing what to expect from the experience was transformed into the confidence I had been searching for to fully pursue a career as a doctor.
I was never supposed to become a doctor; that title was meant for my older brother, Jake. My parents held Jake to the highest standard when it came to academics. They did not deem me worthy of being held to the same standard, so I grew up believing I would never be able to outdo him in academics. This notion of intellectual inferiority combined with my childhood success in athletics motivated me to focus on developing as an athlete rather than a student. So why am I applying to medical school and not playing professional baseball? Well, science captivated my attention in 11th grade and hasn’t let go. Learning the pivotal role the hydrogen bond plays in human life piqued my curiosity and left me wanting more.
I initially pursued a career in pharmacy due to my interest in chemistry. My pursuit ended shortly after my brother was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in 2015. His battle with depression and his struggle to control his diabetes steered me toward a career that allowed a more direct involvement in treatment: medicine. I did not yet feel confident in my decision, because even before he was diagnosed with diabetes, Jake gave up on medical school due to poor grades. Nonetheless, I looked for opportunities to get research experience and patient interaction. In May 2016, I began an immunology-based research internship. I was excited by the idea that my experiments could have an impact on the way patients are treated. The more I delved into research, the more seriously I considered it as a career choice. Many doctors conduct research along with seeing patients, making my decision to fully commit to medicine much easier after the ride with Leila.
I applied to be a Road to Recovery driver in April 2016, and I didn’t hear back until I received an email requesting a ride for Leila. It was a pleasant surprise accompanied with some nervousness. On the way to her treatment, Leila shared her experiences with me. My heart broke as she explained how her father had passed away just a week before she was diagnosed with vaginal squamous cell carcinoma. The cancer recently metastasized to her rectum, leading to additional complications. The most troubling aspect of her story was the way she was treated by her doctors. She described them as condescending and uncaring, making her feel unimportant. Her questions about her condition were labeled foolish by one doctor. Another doctor addressed her by her condition instead of her name. Two hours with Leila opened my eyes to a huge, preventable problem in medicine, and I couldn't ignore it.
Craving more patient interactions, I went on a medical mission trip to Guatemala hoping to help individuals with limited access to healthcare. One morning, while out on a mobile trip in a remote village, a middle-aged man came into one of the hot metal shacks where the doctor and I were seeing patients. His clothes were dirty, his feet were penetrating through his worn-out boots and he was clearly in pain. He was suffering from diabetic neuropathy, and the only medicine available for his pain was ibuprofen, which he said didn’t help at all. He didn't have enough money to pay for anticonvulsant medication at a pharmacy, so he was forced to live in pain. While his suffering is unfair, the opportunity to receive treatment from a doctor is one that is not afforded to a large portion of the world. I hope to focus on treating inequalities in my career as a physician.
After leaving Guatemala, I worked to alleviate social inequality in Nashville by joining the Diverse Student Coalition. On top of my responsibilities as the research chair, I led a group of students every month to cook dinner at a halfway house for the formerly incarcerated. On rides home, students would discuss how their prejudices against ex-inmates transform into compassion. I have seen that one instance of exposure is sufficient to accept a stigmatized member of society as equal, which is why it is important for me to advocate for underrepresented groups and promote the idea that understanding breeds empathy.
“Why didn’t I pursue medicine sooner?” Is the question that now occupies my mind. Leila made me aware of the unprofessional treatment delivered by some doctors. My subsequent activities confirmed my desire to become a doctor who cares deeply for his patients and provides the highest quality care. My passion for research fuels my scientific curiosity. I will continue to advocate for patient equality and fairness. Combining these qualities will allow me to succeed as a physician.