Each year at precisely the same moment – noon on the east coast, 9 a.m. on the west – thousands of graduating medical school students across the country simultaneously tear open an envelope. Inside, there is a single sheet of paper and on it, a handful of words. The words will inform each graduate where he or she will “do” their residencies, where each will spend the first several years of their careers as working doctors.
It’s called Match Day. Started in 1952 and operated by the non-profit National Resident Matching Program, the event culminates months of applications and interviews by fourth-year medical school students, each of whom may have visited a dozen or more hospitals and institutions across the country in search of their perfect match.
Each student creates a ranking of their choices; each hospital and institution creates its own list of preferred students. A computer algorithm compares the lists, crunches the numbers, generates millions of possible combinations and, finally, produces a single choice for each matched student.
Match Day is a rite of passage for every would-be doctor. This year, it happens Friday, March 15. For the 131 members of the 2013 graduating class of the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, who will gather just before 9 a.m. at the Medical Education and Telemedicine Center on the La Jolla campus, Match Day will be a morning and a moment of marvel and mayhem, of uncertainty and celebration. It will mark a new chapter in their already remarkable stories. Here are three:
Workman, 33, grew up in Houston. Her mother was a nurse and that early exposure fostered her own interest in a career in medicine. Despite her initial interest, Pritha decided to pursue a non-traditional path for a daughter of first generation Indian-Americans.
“My family’s Indian and medicine is a typical choice, but I wanted to do something different and chose to attend the U.S. Naval Academy for college.”
During her senior year at the Naval Academy, Sept. 11, 2001 happened. Workman postponed medical school and accepted a commission with the U.S. Marine Corps, eventually becoming an intelligence officer. Based out of MCAS Miramar, she served two tours in Iraq. After 6 years of active duty service, she decided to leave the Marines in 2008 and finally pursue that career in medicine.
The choice was easy; medical school not so much.
In her second year, she gave birth to a son. In her third year, her husband, a Marine F/A-18 pilot stationed at MCAS Miramar, was deployed onboard the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan for 7 months. Throughout, Workman persevered and graduated on time in 2012. She deferred the Match process last year to coordinate careers with her husband.
Her husband, who just returned from another 6-month deployment, is now back in San Diego, where he expects to be stationed for at least the next couple of years. Workman’s expecting, too: Their second child is due at the end of the month.
She hopes to remain in San Diego for her residency. She aspires to be an obstetrician-gynecologist. “I want to focus on women’s health. I think what I can bring to being a doctor is empathy. Women these days are juggling a lot of things: education, careers, families. Being a good doctor means recognizing the many stressors that affect a woman’s overall health. I think I can relate.”
In institutional parlance, Clark is a “nontraditional student.” He’s 34 years old, married, with four children – two of whom were born during his four years at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine. “Medical school isn’t any harder than trying to raise four kids.”
Clark began his work life as a high school biology teacher, but after watching his seniors venture off to new worlds of learning, he decided to follow. He planned to attend graduate school, maybe become a college professor, but then a sort of slow-motion epiphany occurred, encouraged by his wife and sister-in law.
“I realized graduate work was really a lonely experience. I decided two things about what I wanted to do: First, it would have to be something that involved interacting with lots of people; and second, it would need to involve high levels of science.”
He concluded that medicine was the perfect fit. It fit his definition of “doctor.”
“The original meaning of doctor was teacher, not someone who healed,” he said. “I was a teacher first, and that’s what I want to bring to being a doctor. I see my job as being an educator. Empowering patients to be or become healthy is a lot more powerful than just giving them a pill.”
Clark plans to pursue a career in family medicine and is hoping for a residency in northern California.
Southisombath’s family emigrated to California’s Central Valley from Laos in 1990. She was five years old at the time. In the years that followed, she grew up fast.
“My parents were farmworkers. That’s what they knew. I was the first to learn English and I grew up being the translator. I went to my brothers’ and sisters’ (she has five siblings) parent-teacher meetings. I took them to their clinics where I tried to translate words I didn’t even know.
“It was at the clinics that I first saw the real disparities in healthcare. Poor patients would come in, speaking a different language and they would tell you these long stories. Then a doctor would ask what was wrong and they’d say two words.”
Southisombath wants to help remedy that situation as a family medicine physician. She wants to speak for – and care for – those in her community who cannot adequately do so for themselves. She chose to attend UC San Diego’s School of Medicine because she wanted to expand her worldview, to experience other communities. It was a brave and terrifying choice.
“Before coming to San Diego, I had never been outside Fresno.”
Medical school was hard work, but Southisombath, 29, was accustomed to its rigor. She had worked full-time in a local hospital emergency room while attending Fresno State University. Other aspects, though, were more challenging. “I was alone at first. It was scary and humbling. There were a lot of struggles. The thing that I didn’t expect from medical school was how much I would grow emotionally. I was put through the ringer, but I’ve come out better in the end.”
Better for her, and better for the patients she will soon be treating.