It was the day after I pulled my U-Haul trailer into Ann Arbor. I kissed my wife and three little boys goodbye and walked out the door just as the moving truck pulled up with everything we own to unload, only I wasn’t staying to unpack. I was starting medical school … four weeks early, was I crazy!?
I was joining 24 of my classmates in the Leadership and Enrichment for Academic Diversity or LEAD program. LEAD is a three-week med school primer filled with Anatomy, Histology, team building, workshops and … amazing lunches ☺.
At the tender age of 33, with thousand of hours navigating planes around the world as an Air Force pilot I found myself struggling to figure out how to ride a city bus to school and get to Taubman Library … seriously humbling. Despite all of this, and with a little help (as always) from the amazing Becky Weeks, I found my way to campus. I walked into the oddly familiar room with white boards as walls and started meeting my new teammates … hoping I could remember their names. As our group explored the first of 77 rounds of fun facts and introductions, I found myself digesting what I was hearing … research backgrounds, ivy league schools, 1st generation, city year, medical professionals … my new peers were amazing people who had done amazing things. It’s not just their accomplishments, they were truly awesome people. They were great to talk with, they were kind and they were sharp. I found myself feeling the full weight of imposter syndrome. I mean I’ve spent my life flying planes surrounded by so called “elite” men and women in aviation, but suddenly I was feeling like “just an old military guy from Arkansas.” Did they mix my file up with someone else’s?
The crazy thing is that by as early as the end of day two, I realized that everyone had some level of the same feelings as I did. Now this next part is very cliché and I promise no one is paying me to say it, but that’s when I remembered one of the key reasons I chose Michigan: it wasn’t the buildings, the free water bottles or even the curriculum… it was the people! The current students, the faculty, but most importantly, it was my future classmates who I met at interviews and second look. I chose Michigan because the people I met were amazing and I wanted to learn and grow with them for four years. Yes, this group’s accomplishments were intimidating but I mean Emmitt Smith is an amazing running back and very intimidating … but that is why I’d WANT to be on his team. Talented teammates help make great teams (shout out to my 90s Cowboys RIP). From that moment on I no longer saw people with whom I didn’t compare, but friends and allies from whom I could learn.
After those first couple of days our group bonded into a family. I got to live vicariously through group texts about 10 p.m. meet ups to eat or go out, join my friends after class for margaritas and learn about everyone’s amazing story. Even those of us with kids or other situations who couldn’t make some of the fun social events weren’t left out. I was overwhelmed with love and support, people changed times and schedules just to include me … wow!
As we progressed, we encountered firsts. Some of us worked with our first donor in the anatomy lab. We all worked through the trepidation of making our first incision, the amazement of holding and learning about a human heart and brain. For me it was an interesting evolutionary process in the lab. I have worked in combat zones with patients living, near death and dead, but it’s different when your goal is learning from the person rather than ensuring the person survives. My evolution went from over-conservative reverence for the amazing gift our donors gave us, almost fearful to dissect, all the way through to reminding myself that this was not a body but a person, an entire generation of love and story. We got to see where we would one day be, with our M1 student TAs and gain insane respect for Dr. Orczykowski’s and Dr. Sullivan’s mental database of anatomical expertise.
I witnessed the passion of Dr. Hortsch in histology and downloaded all 32 apps we needed to be successful in medical school. As I reflect however it’s not the slides I remember. It’s Dr. Okanlami’s patient presentation where we got to learn and break barriers as people and future physicians. It’s a professor’s funny shirt and personal story. I remember a friend hanging out with my seven-year-old and bonding over ice cream and magic, selflessly running inside to grab him a napkin when he spilled cookie dough on his kicks. I remember a classmate selflessly opening her apartment to all of us, and another buying out the inflatable float section at DICK’s Sporting Goods so we could float the river.
Don’t get me wrong. Everything was not perfect. There were boring moments and even frustrating times. My experience doesn’t lack any of this, but even in these situations, I remember peers asking great questions and working through issues and concerns. I hit a point where I felt tired of talking about “feelings” and all the “fluffy stuff.” In retrospect, I’ve realized part of the reason I felt tired of this is because I haven’t been raised with proactive approaches to overall wellness, and again, it sounds cliché, and again, I promise I am in no way a paid sponsor of any agenda. But seriously, it felt foreign to focus on learning and wellness in non-tangible or testable areas. At the end of it all, I’m glad we did it and I’ll never know who else it benefited during any given day of those sessions.
If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend participating in LEAD. The program won’t help you pass a quiz or be any more ready for that first firehose lecture. It WILL equip you to help soften another classmate’s anxiety during Launch week or help someone find their way to class on time. It will also provide an early chance to really get to know your classmates. In my military past, I knew I could count on the person next to me. We were family. I can honestly say that I can call any of my LEAD teammates at two a.m. any day of the week and they will have my back. I know the same is true of my other 152 classmates I met at Launch!
If anyone has any questions about my experience, shoot me an email and checkout the amazing OHEI site.
Like Dean Gay says, as always Go Blue!!!
Don’t miss the next Dose of Reality.
Jason is a first-year medical student at the University of Michigan. He spent the last 10 years on active duty as an instructor pilot in the U.S. Air Force before transitioning to medical school.