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One Fateful Day

A physician talks about his Odyssey into medicine

By James Kelly

June 16th 2003. As I opened my thick envelope from the last medical school I applied to, my father reminded me this was the same day that James Joyce had set his iconic novel, Ulysses, to take place. As this novel was inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, it was an appropriate date to mark the beginning of my medical education.

The beginning of one odyssey was the end of another. Getting into medical school was a childhood dream, and a young adult problem. Medicine had always been a fascinating career for me. As a child, I remembered my skinny, frail, elderly grandfather suffering a fall in his apartment, injuring his neck. After an initial evaluation in the emergency department, he was given a diagnosis of neck contusion, and given pain medication to go home with.

Something was wrong. Despite a frail appearance, he had a robust appetite. Many family dinners had guests leaving wondering how such a skinny man could eat so much. After the fall, he could not eat. He wanted to, but just could not.

Another trip to the emergency department was needed. But, in a busy ER with a frail elderly man with no appetite as a complaint, no new treatment was offered. Just pain medication. His radiology studies had been read as negative, so just observation was needed.

Except for one doctor. Several years ago, my grandfather broke his hip. The orthopedic surgeon who repaired his hip heard about the new injury. He also knew my grandfather. Not eating was a red flag, so he decided to review the films. A second set of eyes saw a neck fracture, that needed emergent surgery. Just knowing a small detail about a man’s life could save it.

More exposure to medicine was given to me in a most unwanted way. At the end of high school, it was discovered that my mother’s breast cancer had spread to the lungs, then brain. There would be no life-saving intervention from another doctor, but more examples of how doctors can help and heal with compassion and kindness.

With ample motivation, I embarked on my college pre-med career. Medical school admission was the goal of college. Quickly, I learned it was a long shot. My mother passed away the beginning of freshman year, and my grades suffered. By the time it was time to apply for admission to medical school, my GPA was well below the high standards required.

Resolved to make it, I tried to make up for a low GPA. I studied constantly for the MCAT, and earned a respectable score. Any extracurricular activity related to medicine I joined and participated in. Still, a sober look at my application showed a college effort that had fallen short.

I applied to twenty medical schools. The cost was staggering to apply to so many, but I needed a big net. Two schools interviewed me. Nineteen had rejected me, and I was waiting on the twentieth. My thoughts had already turned on applying again. Then the thick envelope came in the mail, and the next odyssey began.

Admissions to medical school is difficult. The road is not linear. Good grades, high test scores and outstanding recommendations are all required. But, with every odyssey, there needs to be story. Odysseus, after the fall of Troy, wanted to go home. His family assumed he was dead and it ended up taking him ten years to make it back. But he made it.

Remember what drives you to become a doctor. Everyone’s odyssey will be different, but every doctor and future doctor needs resiliency. With resilience, just like Odysseus, you will make it home. In one year or ten.

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