I AM THE FUTURE OF MEDICINE – Harold Gomez, MD Candidate at the University of Michigan Medical School
Harold Gomez grew up in a part of Havana, Cuba, called Old Havana. Despite the limited resources in this part of the city, it was a wonderful place to grow up that was full of historical, cultural and artistic gems. Harold has warm memories of exploring the city as a child. His parents traveled and worked so often that he was raised mostly by his grandparents with whom Harold lived. Harold’s grandparents only had an elementary education, however, they inculcated in him a passion for learning and knowledge. “My father had an enormous book collection of more than 3,000 specimens (mostly very old books) and my parents made sure I knew how to access their contents from an early age,” says Harold. “They taught me how to read when I was 3 years old.” Harold’s and his grandfather used to sit next to each other on their balcony and both read at the same time. They would then talk about their favorite books for hours. “I was very fond of adventure books but my favorites were books about animals. I had tons and I would read them over and over.” Furthermore, Harold’s parents always made sure that he was surrounded by enriching experiences and they often took him to museums, monuments and galleries. His favorite activity was going to the Museum of Natural History and spending the whole day there. At the age of 5, Harold had already memorized all of the open exhibits but made a point of discovering something new every time he went. According to Harold, when he was old enough to walk through the city “on my own”, he would go almost every day to the library to read new books. He got to know the staff so well that often they would give him recommendations on books to read. “I did not have a filter about what I read and I devoured a new book almost every day,” says Harold.
During his elementary years, Harold became passionate about math and participated in multiple math contests at state, national and international levels. This, combined with his good grades, allowed him to enter the best high school in Cuba, the IPVCE Vladimir Ilich Lenin. This boarding school is famous not just for educating the most brilliant minds in the country but also for the deep bonds of friendship that the students develop. It was there that Harold met the people who are still his best friends today. “Those were the best three years of my life.” Even though he was in a class for high performance in Mathematics, Harold’s classmates were talented in more than just that. They would spend their entire days discussing a wide range of of subjects including philosophy, science, religion, literature, and music. They did not have access to the internet so books were like Google to them. They also had fun and it was there where he learned to dance salsa, to play baseball and soccer, and to enjoy the pleasure of the theater and cinema. The transition from high school to college in Cuba is different from the United States. Students apply and enter into their desired fields, including medicine, right after high school graduation. However, men were required to spend a year and 6 months in Military Service. As a result, Harold was a soldier from 2006 to 2007. “Those 18 months were the most challenging times of my life,” states Harold. Despite the difficulties that arose, he learned to be responsible and to endure through challenging situations on his own.
In 2007, Harold became a medical student at the University of Havana. He only spent a semester there since at that point his mother, who had then been living in the US for 11 years, was able to get a visa petition for him. Deciding to leave his whole life behind and immigrate to the United States was the most difficult choice that he had to make by that point in his life. “I was 19 years old and I knew that staying in Cuba meant that my future as a doctor would be very limited.” In 2008, Harold arrived to the Miami International Airport. Starting college in the U.S. was a difficult transition for Harold at first. He was not just completely unaware of how the system of education worked, but Harold also had to overcome a language barrier. “Reading in English was not a particularly difficult thing for me, but speaking and writing were. I went from being very proficient communicating in my language to being very bad at any communication in English” states Harold. This was a great shock to him and the first months in the U.S. were difficult. Fortunately, Harold was able to enroll in English as a Second Language classes at Miami Dade College and he experienced a substantial improvement during the first six months. Despite his language barrier, Harold was driven to work harder than his counterparts and was able to obtain a competitive GPA, which afforded him the opportunity to earn a full tuition scholarship to St. Thomas University in 2010.
Harold decided to attend St. Thomas University after learning about their strong Biology program that allowed their students to partake in research activities. While St. Thomas had a competitive program, ultimately it was the scholarship that allowed him to continue his educational pursuits that he is thankful for till this day. “I wanted to work in basic science research and I know now that no other place could have made it easier for me to accomplish this,” says Harold. Due to its size, St. Thomas University was a great place to work very closely with the faculty. It was there that Harold met Dr. Plunkett and Dr. Tapanes-Castillo. These two individuals became his mentors and Harold still asks them for advice to this day. Harold used the time in college to explore many things outside of school and spent a substantial amount of time working in Dr. Plunkett’s neuroscience lab during his junior and senior year. In 2012, Harold graduated from St. Thomas University as summa cum laude while having completed a senior research thesis. He spent part of 2012 and 2013 preparing for his medical school application and completing other goals he wished to accomplish. Harold traveled to Peru and Cuba while also working as a science tutor to finance his medical school applications. “During that time, I was fortunate to attend the MCAT Preparation Program at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine during the 2012 summer; it prepared me for my MCAT and it was a great opportunity to complete my medical school application,” says Harold. As a result, he was accepted into multiple medical schools but, in the end, decided to attend the University of Michigan Medical School (UMMS) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The opportunity to attend medical school without falling into a huge debt was possible due to a scholarship that UMMS offered him. ” I am deeply indebted to the generous people who saw value in giving students like me the opportunity to become physicians in this nation,” says Harold. As a first year medical student he is certain that he could not have chosen another career or school. Though medical school has been challenging thus far, Harold is grateful for the opportunity because this journey that was once a dream is now becoming his reality.
Interview Questions asked by SNMA National Vice-Chairperson of the Publications Committee , Jonathan R. Batson.
Good day Harold, thank you for joining me to answer questions about your career path and journey in medicine for our premedical membership. It is much appreciated.
1. What inspired you to pursue becoming a doctor?
I truly don’t have a specific experience or person that inspired me to become an MD. It was sort of a process. Since being very interested in animal biology from an early age, I thought I would become a biologist when I got older. This idea changed progressively during my high school years when I started to take my first formal human biology classes. I realized that I could encounter the same kind of foundational processes involving a highly complex biological machine in medicine, yet also having the opportunity to interact with people while making a real impact in their lives. It was the humanistic side as well as the fact that doctors can and have changed the course of humanity, what made me fall in love with medicine. Although it is true that you can change the life of others in almost every field, doctors have turned this ability for change into a profession and a daily practice. At that time, I also started to meet more doctors ; there were two in particular who became very close family friends. In a way, they became my idealized heroes and I owe to them a great part of my interest for medicine. I would talk to them for hours and I was fascinated about the stories that they told me about their practice and their education. After high school, I entered medical school in Cuba for one semester. Emigrating to the U.S. cut my education at that point but by then, I was completely certain, with no doubt whatsoever, that medicine was my true life calling.
2. What challenges did you face as an undergraduate & medical student? Was there ever a time when you felt discouraged or someone discouraged you from being a doctor? How did you handle that?
My greatest challenge as an undergraduate student was overcoming the language barrier. It makes a tremendous difference in your confidence and in your performance when you are proficient with the language. The transition that I experienced when I arrived to the U.S. made me doubt whether I would be able to reach my dream. I also encountered several people who discouraged my decision to pursue a medical degree. I am sure that they did not do it with malicious intent, but in their experience, it would be wasted time for an immigrant to try to follow such a long career path. However, I have never been one to give up on something based on other people’s opinion. I was completely sure that medicine was my vocation and I made a plan to overcome the most common obstacles that people encounter in their way. I realized that the language barrier was more self-imposed than real. I had to overcome the fear to make mistakes and embarrass myself. My solution was to make a daily challenge out of this. It seems to have worked although I am still not completely satisfied with my level of fluency. I guess this lack of satisfaction is something that we all have in a way or another and it is what drive us to become better individuals. I use it as a fuel to improve on my language and communication skills. Discouragement by others is something that you might encounter more frequently in your journey. People doubt you or they try to make you doubt yourself. On the other hand, you will also find numerous people who will believe in you and who will aid you in your way. I think that the latter and maintaining a strong belief in yourself is the only thing that will keep you focused; at least this was true in my case. The pre-medical path is a difficult one. It is more of a test of resilience than anything else.
3. How did you balance the demands of your medical education with additional obligations and challenges?
This is a very difficult question and one that I am still trying to figure out myself. I ask this question to most people I know, especially doctors who are now successful practitioners, in an attempt to find my own balance between my education and my other obligations. In reality, I don’t think there is a definitive answer. Finding the right balance is a process where you have to be correcting yourself all of the time. There are a few things that do help in this process. First, you must always be alert and vigilant of what is consuming most of your time and you must strive for optimizing that. This is the idea behind the 80/20 rule: 20% of my efforts produces 80% of my results, and it has worked in my case. For example, when I started medical school I had to adjust my way of learning. My learning methodology was very effective during my undergraduate years but it was extremely time consuming. This is something that does not work in medical school and I had to optimize my own learning avenues and to package knowledge in the most efficient way. This took some time but now I can accomplish a lot more in less time than before. Another thing that has helped me is to learn to organize my time in an electronic calendar. I usually take some time to plan my next week ahead of time and to map out what I am supposed to be doing and when. This might sound very basic but it is very easy to forget to do it. I also use our natural tendency to procrastinate to my advantage. I set earlier deadlines for my work and forget about it until then. At that point, I give the task at hand my strongest energy and my best effort.
So far, this has helped me to utilize better my time and to have more opportunities to maintain my social life. In medical school, it is easy to neglect taking care of your family, friends and colleagues. However, maintaining a social network is crucial. Without that social support, you will find it very challenging to become a great physician. As an undergraduate student, most students strive to encompass a wide set of extracurricular activities. In medical school however, you must focus on the ones that really interest you. You must try not to overload yourself. It is extremely easy to carry on with trying to do everything but soon you will find, as I found out myself, that it is just not possible. It is best to try to really leave a mark or enjoy fully those things that really touch your heart. I learned this the hard way; but that is also the most durable way to learn.
4. Please describe your participation in special programs such as volunteer work, research,or study-abroad opportunities during medical school.
I’m on my second semester of medical school so I have not had the opportunity to engage in many activities like research or study abroad. However, I do belong to several organizations like the AMA and AMSA, and I try to maintain a certain level of activity in them. I recently started to teach a Beginner Medical Spanish class with a 2nd year medical student. We are currently working on designing a curriculum that can be useful for first and second year medical students when learning to communicate with Spanish speaking patients. As for future plans, I will be collaborating during the summer of 2014 in a biomedical research project working on infections of implanted devices. I strongly believe that doctors must take an active role in the scientific community by addressing the medical problems that they encounter along the way. Working on this project will not just help me to translate bench work into the clinical setting, but will also allow me to gain more insight into the scientific method to help a larger population of patients in the future.
5. Did you partake in any summer enrichment programs as an undergrad?
I participated in two summer enrichment programs as an undergraduate. They both played an important role in my success applying to medical school in their unique ways. The first program I attended was the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. This program is hosted by other medical schools throughout the country and it has been very successful in giving underrepresented applicants an edge for many years. It was a true eye opener to me. You have to understand how ignorant I was of the whole application process at that point to see how much this program helped me. I had recently migrated from Cuba and I had just completed my first year of college. For two months, I was constantly presented with information about the admissions process, the MCAT, and the field of medicine and how it is practiced in the U.S. . More importantly, I had the opportunity to meet other students from disadvantaged backgrounds from all over the country and the world. I learned that disparities in health care and medical education are a much bigger problem that we dare to acknowledge. This was a very fulfilling experience and I encourage every pre-medical student to pursue this great opportunity. The program accepts applications every year and hundreds of applicants benefit from it.
The second program was more focused on MCAT preparation. In 2012, I participated in the MCAT Preparation Program at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. I spent two months in a high-paced intense MCAT preparatory course while gaining insight in the medical school application process from the perspective of the admissions committee. Participating in this program was one of the most demanding and yet rewarding academic endeavors that I have ever done. I also had the amazing opportunity to know other students who were in my same position and we really developed a strong feeling of community. The MCAT Preparatory program was fundamental in the success of my application to medical school.
6. Why does diversity matter not only in medical education, but in the field as well?
There used to be a time in the US, and in many other places, when doctors would practice in a very uniform body of patients. This was not necessarily due to lack of variety among those who needed health care but due to social and political issues. We have advanced tremendously since them. Civic justice opened the doors of the health care system to a population who was, and still is, in great need of attention and care. World globalization and increased immigration has also changed the landscape of what type of patient a doctor sees every day. As a result, a doctor who is not aware of this diversity and who does not feel comfortable working among different types of patients will encounter practicing medicine increasingly challenging. Cultural unawareness is something that not just affects doctors and patients, but that has weakened the foundations of our health care system. There is a substantial gap between where we are now and where we want to be as a body of professionals. This gap is being strongly addressed in the current medical education programs. Medical schools are trying to admit a more diverse body of students and to incorporate cultural and social awareness as part of the medical education. Cultural and social aspects of disease are integrated in the curriculum of the best medical schools of the country and efforts are being made to make them part of the training of medical residents as well. Although the change has been substantial in the last decade, there is a long way to cover before our current system of medical education fills the gaps that still exist. This is as much a responsibility of the schools as it is of the students. It is not until we all accept this responsibility in a rapid changing and very diverse society that the disparities in health care will be breached.
7. What advice do you have for premedical students who are embarking on a career in medicine?
I have two pieces of advice for those who have decided to embark in this path. First, if medicine is your dream you must take the time to understand why. The medical profession is highly respected in our society and doctors enjoy a special position of trust and leadership. As such, there is a certain glamour to the medical profession that attracts a lot of young people. However, students who go into medicine with a romanticized view of the field can end up being disappointed and very unhappy if down the road they discover that medicine is not what they expected. Keeping in mind your reasons to pursue a medical career will help you go through the difficult moments. Furthermore, you will be challenged along the way by other people, many times not because they don’t believe in you or because they wish you evil, but because they have been disappointed many times themselves and want to spare you from erring. In those moments, you will persevere because you will have something to hold on to: your dream.
My second piece of advice will sound counter-intuitive to most, but I have come to understand it with experience. You must follow your own path to the medical profession. In the past, the academic path to medical school was very straight forward. You would go to college, take the required courses, do some extracurricular activities, do well in the MCAT and you had very good chances to be accepted. Today, our society has changed and the demands from doctors have shifted as well. We are in dire need of doctors who are well-rounded with experiences in the real world besides attending school and who can lead a profound transformation in the health care system. The admission teams from most medical schools are responding to these needs and are changing the pool of applicants that they are accepting. Competition to enter into medical school is at its peak; medical schools received more applicants last year than ever before. This must not discourage you. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to stand out by pursuing your passions before you decide to apply. There is no single formula that will guarantee you acceptance into a medical education program but doing what makes you tick and being passionate about something will highly increase your chances.
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