Monday, July 6, 2015

so you're a grown up who wants to go to medical school, part one

Hello wide world out there. It's been a while. So much has happened since my last post... breakups, organic chemistry, new apartments, travel coast-to coast, new roommates, a nephew (who is the best), and the dreaded MCAT (which was the worst).  Woven through it all, the good and the bad, are the thousands of meters* of yarn I've knitted these past two years. I can now say, in glorious past tense that I applied to medical school... the first round of applications anyway.

Getting into an MD program, what was two years ago an unbelievably daunting endeavor now feels close at hand, dare I say, achievable! I thought I would chronicle my journey here for any interested individuals by answering the questions that I had two and a half years ago when I realized I was a grown-up who wanted to go to medical school.

Who are you and why do you want to be a doctor?
I'm Maura. I am 27 years old. I have a BFA in Acting from the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program. I live in Chicago. To pay my rent, I teach knitting and work in a local yarn shop called Nina.

When I moved to Chicago, I was hired as a standardized patient at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Standardized patients are actors who pretend to be sick to train doctors. My favorite part of the mock physical exams with the medical students was the "moment before." When rehearsing a play in acting school, we'd pour over the details of our "moment before." We'd ask ourselves, "What happened right before I, as the character, walked into this room? Where had I just been, who did I see, what did I last eat?" But as a standardized patient, the "moment before" I relished was something different. I loved the anticipation of the moment before the student doctor entered the room. What would that very first moment feel like? What was the essence of the intangible energy that would fill the small, windowless space as soon as another human entered it? Would I feel a sense of calm wash over me or would my flight or flight response be triggered immediately by a brusque misstep? I quickly realized that being a doctor required much more than a wealth of medical knowledge. It was the students I saw who possessed effortless communication skills, a facility for empathy and the courage to look me in the eye and tell me the truth who I knew would one day become someone's beloved doctor. It was in those mock patient rooms that I realized I wanted to achieve my goal of having a challenging career meaningfully serving others, not as an actor, but as a primary care doctor.

What is your goal as a medical practitioner?
My goal is to provide primary care medicine to underserved populations in a unique setting that emphasizes proactive physical and mental health lifestyles. My background in theater, adeptness with communication and human emotion, and passion for healing will make me a powerful force in my patients' lives. Seeing myself running a clinic 15 years down the road, I imagine having monthly walks with my patients, smoking cessation and weight loss support groups and a basket of yarn and knitting needles in the waiting room, as a stress relief suggestion! Some might say I am too idealistic, that the state of medicine is too dismal for anything like that. However, if I am able to successfully execute one tenth of the ideas I have for changing primary care, I will be proud to know that I made my patients' lives better in small, but significant ways.

How did you complete the required pre-requisites to enter medical school?
I enrolled in Northwestern University's Pre-Medicine Post-baccalaureate Program. This is a 2-year night school for career-changers like myself. We attended school two nights a week and all day on Saturdays. Year one was general chemistry and physics; year two was organic chemistry and biology. If you are like me and have to complete all of the pre-med coursework, I would strongly recommend attending a post-bacc program if one is available in your city rather than taking your pre-reqs a la carte. My reason is this:

I couldn't have done it alone.

Nevermind the seven years of attending medical school and residency... getting into medical school is a big time commitment. Attending a post-bacc program to complete the science requirements allowed me to have age appropriate, brave comrades on this journey. My lab partners were other grown-ups with jobs, kids, partners and pasts who were sacrificing emotionally, physically and financially alongside of me to do this. We were each other's cheerleaders, tutors, counselors, knitting buddies and, above all, friends.

When I first began the program, it was hard, it was so hard. Years of yoga, neutral mask and circus skills had turned my brain to artsy fartsy, sensitive mush. Besides the physics and the chemistry just being difficult to master, I went through an additional crisis of faith. After turning down an offer for a play because I was in school, I rapidly spiraled down the ever so helpful “But did I give up my dream??” rabbit hole and I worried that I would grow to regret that leaving acting. A month in, I decided that I was going to leave after the first quarter was over. I confided this to my lab partner, Ciara. She asked me what I was going to do if I left. I said, "I don't know, work in the yarn shop forever?" She looked me square in the face and said, "You can do that when you retire but now you should become a doctor." Months later, I taught Ciara to knit and she is now nearly as obsessed as I am, but she was right. This is my purpose now. That was just one instance where we few, we happy few believed in each other when we didn’t believe in ourselves. As time went on, I pushed away thoughts of quitting … and my brain got stronger like the muscle that it is and the learning came easier and the concepts clearer as more and more lines from Shakespeare were evicted from my brain and replaced with chemical formulas, theories of physical space and organ systems.

We weren't always smiling as we are in the pictures above, but we did smile and laugh a lot, if only to keep from crying about a low grade or a frustrating assignment. There is talk of pre-meds being ultra competitive saboteurs, ready to cut one another down at the first chance. My experience was anything but that: this determined, diverse group lifted me up, buoying me forward through the hurricane of organic chemistry molecules, endless powerpoint lectures and botched Saturday morning NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, something I understand, believe it or not). Besides providing wonderful peers, the program provided advisors, a student Pre-Health club, volunteer and job opportunities and a clear trajectory that took a lot of the guesswork out of collecting the pieces of the puzzle required to submit a competitive medical school application.

What was your MCAT experience like?
There is no secret to success on the MCAT. To prepare, I studied 20-30 hours a week for 4 months including a few hours on Christmas Day. I took the Kaplan live online 12-week test prep course. I took 6 practice tests made available through Kaplan. These tests are essential for building stamina and learning how to pace the 60 minutes of each section. However, because the score you ultimately received is a scaled score based on your fellow test-takers' performance, the practice test scores seem to be poor indicators of the score you will receive on test day.  The highest single practice score I received was a 506. The most helpful test was the one released by the AAMC itself. If your prep course does not come with this test, as Kaplan's does, I highly suggest buying it. I took the 2015 MCAT on the first possible test day, April 17, one day before my 27th birthday. In the end, I scored in the 96th percentile and received a 517. I am so grateful to never ever have to take that test again.

That's all for part one! Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks!


*As I'm a scientist now, I use the metric system.

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