Alec, 20 years old. I am a bit younger than the average medical student, and to be honest, I am self-conscious about it at times.
Where did you grow up? Where is home?
Baldwinville, MA. It is a small town up by the New Hampshire border. I moved back to Baldwinville for financial reasons and commute to medical school everyday - it is a 45 minute drive. I have significant undergrad debt, and my parents contribute to my medical education by giving me a roof over my head, food, and paying for my car. It feels weird being back home. I was in such a rush to leave. I explored the world – I did research on the Island of Montserrat, travelled to Italy, Puerto Rico, and studied abroad in Spain and the UK at Oxford University. I am a different person now. Everyday, I drive past the high school that I dropped out of, and it serves as a reminder of who I used to be. It humbles me and reminds me of my beginnings.
Where did you attend college and what did you study?
I dropped out of high school when I was 16 years old to attend Bard College at Simon’s Rock where I majored in Chemistry and Biology. I left high school for a whole bunch of reasons. Academically, I was being held back. The social atmosphere was very toxic for me for many reasons, but homophobia was one of them. And I have a genetic cancer syndrome which I mention below. While I am healthy now, the older I get, the more likely it is to come back. No one can be certain how long we have in this life, and I knew what I wanted. I wanted to become a doctor, so I set out to become one. I am now a first-year medical student at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
What motivates you? Or in other words, what gets you out of bed in the morning?
I am so happy to say that I wake up every morning excited for the day. Medical school has been my dream for so long, and I am finally studying my passion. Some days are rougher than others. This last week, the commute really hit me. I was exhausted the entire week, but I still managed to get up every morning and attend lecture. When my alarm goes off, and I am struggling to get out of bed, I think about the future patients I will treat. What I do now will directly impact on the care they receive.
Who is most important to you and why?
So many people. My family and friends. Medical school requires a huge support team, and I could not do it without them. Medical school means that when my car needs to go into the shop for an emergent repair, my mother gets up even earlier than her normal 5am wake up time so that I can drive her to work, use her car, and then my Dad picking her up so I can be in class. It means calling my friends on the way home and chatting about our days. It means my friends letting me rant to them and calming me down about upcoming exams. We are all in this together.
Describe your perfect day.
I would love to sleep in on a snowy day and start my day with a warm cup of coffee. Later on, I would wrap myself in a blanket by the fire and watch movies while sipping hot coco and eating some comfort food. That sounds like the perfect day to me right now while I am exhausted from studying pelvic anatomy.
Tell me about your dream.
I am still not 100% sure what I want do specialize in, but I am leaning towards pediatric hematology/oncology. My dream is that in 30 years, I can still wake up everyday in love with medicine and looking forward to practicing it every day. I am thinking I may find this in pediatrics because whenever I go to the pediatric floor or clinic, I always look forward to it, and whenever I leave, I want to go back. Even when the kids are screaming and crying, and it is a rough day, I want to go back. I want to help them. They are so brave, and it would mean so much to me if I could give children a second chance at life just like the second chance that was given to me.
Is there something about yourself you wish you could improve? Why?
I am very hard on myself. It makes me stressed at times, and it can be bad for my overall mental health.
What is one thing you wish people knew about you?
I tend to be very introverted and reserved, so I think most people do not know me that well. I am a completely different person in class and while I am in my productive mode than I am when I am on vacation or relaxing. I think I come across as pretty boring when I am focused, but I am actually pretty crazy (haha!) Catch me on the dance floor, and you will see!
Tell me about your creative outlets. Feel free to provide links to any of your work.
For the longest time, I was involved in theater. I started theater when I was in second grade, and then I took a break until middle school. It was the only place where I felt like I belonged. I did a lot of plays as well as musical theater. Some of my happiest memories are from theater. I loved doing competitive drama. Schools from the area would all come together and perform plays for an entire Saturday. There would be state judges there, and they would give out awards. The best plays would move on, and the others would be eliminated. We were always eliminated, but it was so much fun. I miss my theater days. When I got to college, I put a lot of time and energy into my pre-medical studies. While I was not able to do theater, I took up dance. I took a West African Dance class my freshman year, and it was amazing. During my senior year, I took a hip-hop class, and now I am part of the UMass Med Dance group. We do all different types of dance form jazz to burlesque!
What are you most afraid of?
Anything that would result in a progressive cognitive decline. So much of what I have built in my life depends on my brain, and it would terrify me to see everything slip away while still being semi-aware of it.
We all have turning points in our lives that set us off in a different direction. These catalytic moments can include heartbreak, a meaningful conversation, an injury, the death of a loved one, and so many other things… Is there a turning point in your life that altered your trajectory. What did you learn from this moment?
The day I got into Bard College at Simon’s Rock turned my life in a completely different direction. I was going to be the valedictorian of my high school, and I was on my way to getting into one of the top schools of the country. I had my eyes set on going to an Ivy or another top tier school. My path was clear - be involved in extracurriculars, volunteer, do well academically, get into a top tier college, and then off to medical school. But something wasn’t right – I wasn’t happy. I was doing well, and I was succeeding, but there was no point to any of it if I wasn’t happy. I was being held back academically, and the social environment was toxic. I needed to get out. I had looked into transferring to different high schools or possibly attending a private school when I had come across Simon’s Rock. It seemed like the perfect option, and when I interviewed, I fell in love. I had no idea that I would actually get in. Once I got the acceptance email, I had a decision to make. I put the decision off for a while. Could I really drop out of high school? What would happen? Could I still go to medical school without a high school diploma? What if I go, and I fail? What if I go and I hate it? The rest of my life would be altered depending on the decision that I would make. I was at a fork in the road. I decided I would take my chances at happiness, and I never looked back. It was the best decision. I found so much happiness. I was free. I got to take intellectually stimulating classes, and I was no longer the smartest person in the room, which I loved! I had so much to learn. My eyes were opened to the blatant racism, homophobia, and sexism that I had been living in for my entire life. I made some of the best friends a person could have. I travelled! I got the research and explore. Most importantly, I found myself. I gathered the courage to come out as part of the LGBTQ+ community, and I loved life again. I learned a lot from my time in middle school and high school. It gave me very thick skin, which I am grateful for, but I learned to never sacrifice my happiness for anything. My happiness is first, and the rest will fall into place.
Have you ever felt like giving up? How did you convince yourself to continue?
I have never felt like giving up on medicine, but I have felt defeated at times. I have felt like there are these insurmountable, yet invisible, obstacles in my way. The way I find the motivation to continue is by looking back. When I look forward, it seems near impossible, but looking back gives me perspective. I survived cancer, I got into college two years early, I studied abroad, and now I am in medical school. I have fought too hard to give up.
Has there been a time where you knew you were in the exact right place?
After I was diagnosed with cancer, I became involved in the Greater Gardner Relay for Life. The very first one I attended, I walked the survivor lap, and it was powerful. I was in a see of purple (survivors wear purple shirts), and emotions were high. Some people were sad to not have their loved ones walking it this year, others were happy just to see another day, and others were celebrating being cancer free. As I walked the lap, someone recognized me. It was my best friend from pre-school, Mallory. We had not talked in many years, and we were now both 10 years old. Ever since then, we have remained very strong friends. Even when we don’t talk for a little while, we both know we are there for one another. Our friendship is solid and unbreakable. When I reflect on it, I know that I was in the exact right place in the exact right time. If I had not been diagnosed with cancer, I would not have been at Relay, and we probably never would have seen each other again.
How do you keep your mind sharp and your body strong? Do you exercise? Do you read? Do you do crossword puzzles?
I am honestly really terrible at keeping my body strong. I struggle to find the time to exercise in medical school due to my commute. I try to always do the stairs, and I have been walking form the garage to class instead of taking the shuttle because I figure it is better than nothing. I am not great about eating either. The first month of medical school, I lost a significant amount of weight because I just felt like I had no time to eat. However, I have gotten much better about it, and I have started packing more food to eat! My friends can vouch for me on this! One thing I NEVER sacrifice is my sleep. I KNOW I need 8 hours of sleep at a minimum to keep my mind operating at its best! I try to get more than that. I do enjoy reading a lot, but I mostly do that on breaks.
Who do you admire and why?
I admire Dr. Heung-Bae Kim. He was the surgeon who took out my tumor 12 years ago. He saved my life, but he is more than just my hero. He cares for his patients, and he fights for them. He let me do research with him during undergrad, and he is the most intelligent doctor I know. He invented the Serial Transverse Enteroplasty Procedure (STEP) for small bowel syndrome, which is going to help so many lives. He is constantly coming up with new and innovative ways to solve problems, and I think his mind is incredible. I can appreciate his medical prowess now that I am a medical student, but when I was a kid, what made him such a great physician was not the fact that he invented the STEP procedure or was published in a ton of amazing journals, it was the way he cared for me. When I refused to eat, he offered to go to McDonald’s and get me some chicken nuggets because he knew they were my favorite. I aspire to be the kind of doctor that he is.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Everyday we are alive is a gift. Don’t take that for granted. Wake up, and live your life as if it were your last. Sometimes we can get so caught up in our dreams and aspirations that we forget to live in the present. Work hard, but be happy. When you are feeling like you are up against insurmountable obstacles, look back at everything you have overcome and know that you can overcome one more thing!
Thank you, Alec, for sharing your story! For those interested in learning more about Alec’s cancer journey, check out his Instagram @patient.to.physician or look up the Instagram hashtag #patienttophysicianstory.