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The morning of November 5, I was feeling ready to take on any problem and looking forward to shadowing Dr. Craig Dean in his medical practice for the day. It felt like my dream career was officially getting started. By that afternoon, I had decided that I was never going to go into medicine.

It was the first year of my undergrad. I had selected all the prerequisite courses and electives, set myself up with half a dozen extracurricular activities, and was working hard to best prepare myself for a career as a physician. I thought I was ready for anything, but I wasn’t prepared for Annie, who was ten years old and had terminal cancer. Shortly after meeting her, I had to excuse myself to go into another room and cry.

Dr. Dean found me and asked if I was okay, and I told him I thought I’d go home early because this wasn’t for me. But then, Dr. Dean remarked how good I was with Annie and the other patients. I had to concede that I had enjoyed interacting with the patients and families all day.

“People like Annie have problems that won’t go away,” Dr. Dean said, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t help.”

I will always remember that day because what could have been the premature end to my entire career wound up becoming the main driving force for me to succeed. As I advanced in my studies, I gravitated toward patients who were gravely ill but who still had a life and needed our help to improve, lengthen, and assist in the optimal living of that life in any way we can.

What is terminal today can be manageable tomorrow, which is what motivates my parallel interest in lab work and research. In fact, my additional lab work as a student led to summer and then part-time regular employment at Major Teaching Hospital. My second year working in the lab saw my responsibilities increase, and I was able to more directly help with work on samples. Bloodwork was very common, but it was working with tissue samples that was most memorable for me.

We had received several samples for cancer screening, including lymphoma screening which was going to take several days, and while I was assisting with this process, I discovered errors in two of the samples. While this did not seem extraordinary to me, my supervisor, Dr. Duncan, made sure to tell me she was impressed with my work and to underscore the fact that I had helped make sure a patient received good information – information needed for that person’s care and possibly survival.

I think this attention to detail is why lab work is one of my favorite aspects of health care. It is challenging and difficult, often tedious, and can be filled with frustrating dead-ends and a seeming lack of progress. But it can be exciting as well – receiving results, figuring out pieces in a larger puzzle, conducting experiments to find answers. Progress takes time; thus, while developing my comfort level, lab skills, and analytical thinking, I also developed my patience. Moreover, I learned that what doctors do behind the scenes is what makes our role so important.

Whether I am contributing to research in a lab setting or providing care and comfort with patients directly, I have renewed my delight in medicine, thanks to lessons learned from patients like Annie and my supervising physicians. As oncology will be my focus, your institution, with its state-of-the-art research facilities, is perfectly suited to my academic and career objectives.

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