Medical School: Making an Entrance
By Gary Pettus
Getting past the doorkeepers of medical school hinges on many attributes beyond lofty test scores and hefty GPAs – motivation, integrity, desire, compassion are among the intangible keys.
Here’s the story of two hopefuls who were turned away – until they followed their heart through the door.
Third-year medical students: Madiha Ahmad, Sarika Chandak, Nikhil Patel, Corey Sivils, and Chadwick Mayes
Chadwick Mayes of Madison was eating lunch at his parents’ house when the email from admissions vaulted him off the couch.
“I jumped on every piece of furniture in the room, ran to the other rooms, jumped on all the furniture there, then called my mamma, jumped on some more furniture, then called my dad,” he said.
“You couldn’t take my smile away for whole week.
“My blood was rushing so fast, I got so hyped. I have never jumped like a little girl before. That was the best day of my life – so far.”
It was also his second chance.
This spring, Mayes finished his second year of medical school.
On Match Day 2013, Dr. Lyssa Weatherly and her husband Dr. Brandon Weatherly discover where he will be doing his residency – at UMMC in radiology.
No one can say for sure that Weatherly and Mayes would not have made it past the UMMC School of Medicine admissions committee 40, 30 or even 15 years ago.
But this much is clear: Compared to those days, test scores may matter slightly less; but passion, motivation and other traits that make good doctors matter more.
In health-poor Mississippi, it’s vital to train such people, said Dr. Steven T. Case, associate dean for medical school admissions.
Sometimes you have to slog through a forest of towering GPAs and test scores to find them.
So, if a member of the admissions committee asks you why you want to be a doctor, “‘To provide a stable living for my family,’” is not a good answer, he said.
“And we don’t want to get someone who may be strong in the sciences but upon entering clinical training in the third year says, ‘Oh, I don’t like the smell.’”
For three summers as a teenager, Lyssa Taylor (she hadn’t married Brandon Weatherly yet) ran the office of Dr. Walter Burnett, a Yazoo City family practitioner.
She liked everything about the place, even the smell. She liked the doctor.
“I loved how much the patients trusted him, the difference he made in their lives, how much he cared for them,” she said.
She probably could have been happy doing many things – business, banking. But there aren’t many professions that allow you to change people for good; there aren’t many that let you keep them alive – then let you see them again, maybe for years.
Her commitment to medicine strengthened through the influence of Burnett, during her pre-med studies at Mississippi College, and after her grandmother became ill.
“I believe it was being in the hospital with her and seeing her go through all that stuff, wanting to help her and not being able to,” she said.
It grew as she worked one summer in Nashville for a plastic surgeon who created a new ear for his patient – from the patient’s rib.
“How is this possible?” Weatherly said. “It was the first time I was blown away by the ability of medicine to change things.”
After four of her friends died in separate accidents just two months apart, she knew for sure.
“That was the point in my life when I felt I had to really mature. When I realized everything could change in a second. ‘This is what I want to do, so I’ll do it. ’ ”
This medical school is the only one she applied to. “We need doctors in Mississippi,” she said.
Her father is a pharmacist and her sister is a master’s level nurse, but no one else in the family is a doctor.
“My parents always wanted me to go as far as I could go,” she said, “but when I told them I wanted to do medicine, they thought I was too soft-hearted, that I would cry all the time.
“I do cry all the time.”
When Mayes was a boy, he broke his arms a lot. This was fine with him because it meant more trips to the hospital.
“I used to fake injuries so I could go there and hang around the nurses’ station and ask questions,” he said.
“I did that so much until I really got hurt and my parents wouldn’t take me to the hospital; they said, “Walk it off.’ ”
Sometime after the fifth grade, he announced that he’d rather heal injuries than sustain them, so his dad, a honcho for a company that runs medical clinics, got him in touch with some doctors; one was a Jackson obstetrician, Dr. Paul Matthew Rice.
“I was 14 or 15 the first time when he let me watch a baby being born,” Mayes said. “When I didn’t pass out, I figured this might be for me.”
His relatives also played a part.
“All of them have diabetes or hypertension. I watched them have strokes. An uncle had cancer,” Mayes said.
“I saw what my family was going through, so I thought there must be 10,000 more families here going through the same thing.”
He decided to choose primary care, he said, since “no one in my family likes to go to the doctor.”
Maybe they would go to him.
Dr. John “Hamp” Miller Sr. graduated from the School of Medicine in 1962, during the era of Dr. James Hardy and Dr. Arthur Guyton, physicians who, among others, burnished UMMC’s bona fides.
“I didn’t feel like I was slighted in any way by going to this medical school,” said Miller, a Jackson native and retired obstetrician living in Nacogdoches, Texas.
“In other schools, you didn’t see the things we saw, especially in the emergency room. They bring in a man with a knife in his chest and the knife is still moving to the heartbeat; you watch doctors repair this heart, and the man lives.”
Miller values his medical education, but admits the times were troubling socially. He attended the one whites-only high school in Jackson.
When he entered medical school in 1958, four women were in his class. There were no African Americans.
“All that’s changed, and Mississippi did it as smoothly as anyone else,” he said.
Asked if he thought today’s emphasis on diversity is good for medical schools, he said, “Yes, any time there’s fairness, that’s good.
“You look back on the education system I went through, there was nothing fair about it.”
The yellowed pages of old university catalogs aren’t explicit, but you can read between the fading lines.
In 1914, when it was a two-year school in Oxford, the medical school held to the same admissions standards as those for the College of Liberal Arts. Applicants needed a year of college. You had to be at least 16, but there were exceptions. That was it.
In 1955, when the School of Medicine debuted in Jackson as a four-year institution, applicants were admitted on a “competitive basis: scholastic records and Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores.” They were also judged on the “basis of character, motivation and promise of fitness for the practice of medicine.”
There was no mention of diversity, ethnicity, etc., but there was this: “Women are considered on the same basis as men.”
By the 1970s or ’80s, people were admitted without regard to “race, sex, gender,” and so forth, and by the 2000s, there was a stated “commitment to diversity.”
The 2012-2013 bulletin goes much further, laying out a long list of preferred attributes, such as the desire to learn, leadership, experience in health care, volunteering, research, employment, integrity, communication skills, the ability to play nice.
When the 2012 class formed, more than 40 percent of the students were women, 19 percent were minorities, 11 percent were African Americans.
About one in five became the first in their families to graduate from college; one in three was from disadvantaged backgrounds; more than 70 percent were from counties without enough doctors.
“Diversity is not just about race and ethnicity,” Case said.
Medical schools, particularly this one, look at the whole person; this “holistic review” ensures that Mississippi’s future doctors mirror its population – socioeconomically, culturally, philosophically, Case said.
“So when a group of students stands around a patient, the patient gets better care; the students get better training.”
They also get more support, perhaps, than they used to.
“We don’t want to lose a medical student, especially when most of the counties in our state are underserved,” said Dr. Jerry Clark, chief student affairs officer.
“Certainly, we’re not going to put up with issues of character, but otherwise we’re quick to provide resources to help our students succeed. And I’ll say our students have done well.”
In more than two decades of admissions reviews here, the applicants’ average science and math GPA hasn’t changed from 3.6, Case said.
The average score on the MCAT hasn’t changed; it’s still around 27 or 28; 45 is tops. In the 12 years or so that Case has chaired the admissions committee, the medical school has made this very telling discovery: “When it comes to successful graduation rates, there is no difference between students who make a 21 or a 29 on the MCAT.
“So people might say, ‘Why did you admit someone with scores lower than the average, then deny admission to people with a 4.0 and a 38 MCAT?’
“We come back and say they lack the life experiences we’re looking for; they lack the personal attributes.”
In high school and college, her grades were “great.”
“But I was a terrible test taker,” Weatherly said.
“I didn’t do well on the MCAT either time. The first time, they turned me down because of my score.
“I decided to apply again, retook the MCAT and raised my score by only one point.”
She was the same person who applied the second time. Nothing about her had changed – except her sincerity.
“The first admissions essay I wrote, I did the cookie-cutter thing,” she said. “I wrote what I thought were all the right things to say.
“The second time, I realized, ‘I’ve got to make you understand.’”
His GPA was “very low,” he said; his MCAT score was average.
The admissions committee turned him down in 2008.
But, later, in a stroke of what he called “divine intervention,” Mayes was invited into the Professional Portal Track Program, a mentorship effort for students with less-than-stellar grades but the potential to succeed in medicine.
His GPA shot up by more than a point in this program, while his MCAT score barely improved.
So he concentrated on making the grade in his community; he mentored middle-school students and built houses for Habitat for Humanity.
He matured, in part because of the deaths of several people close to him. “I realized that life is kind of short; you can’t be lollygagging.”
He described all this in his admissions essay – “making sure it was truthful and sounded good.”
The admissions committee liked the sound.
She was “tabled” the second time; put on a waiting list.
That’s why she wasn’t expecting to get the word so soon. That’s why she cried so hard when she found out; although, she would have cried anyway.
“When I got in, it was, ‘I’m going to prove you guys did the right thing.’”
But it wasn’t what she expected.
“It was better,” Weatherly said.
“The first two years are about learning how to be a good student. It’s all about you. You have to miss people’s birthdays, family trips, because you’re studying.
“By the third year, you realize it’s not about you anymore. When you open a book as a third-year student, it doesn’t say, ‘This is a book on hypertension.’
“It says, ‘Mrs. Smith.’ ”
During his time in medical school so far, Mayes has helped organize fund-raisings for Batson Children’s Hospital, including one that brought in more than $2,000.
He’s a leader, Clark said. “There’s just something about Chad that makes you gravitate toward him.”
For her part, Weatherly has led a program recognizing the medical center’s staffers, put together course reviews for M1s, helped newly-admitted students learn the ropes before they get here.
“Dr. Weatherly has helped make the University of Mississippi Medical Center a better place,” Clark said. “I’m not aware of anyone who has made a bigger impact as a student.”
The admissions committee got it right, he said.
March 15: Match Day.
Lyssa Weatherly has been here before; her husband Brandon has not.
They dated in college and were married last year. A few years ago, both decided to apply to medical school at the same time, her first time. But on this day, he is still a four-year student, one year behind her.
He needs a residency match at UMMC; he needs to be with his wife.
“If I don’t get this,” he says, “I may be working at Krystal Burger.”
They sit next to each other in the crowded room, her head resting on his shoulder, waiting for his name to be called.
He hops to the stage, opens his envelope, and in a spoof of LeBron James’ NBA melodrama, dons a baseball cap and says, “I’ll be taking my talents to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.”
Through her smile and, of course, her tears, maybe Dr. Lyssa Weatherly remembers why her husband is a year behind her, a turn of events that goes back to the day they were struggling to write their admissions essays together, when she suddenly stopped and began to sob, unable to put into words how much this meant to her.
One day he would decide that it meant a lot to him, too; but at that moment, he hugged his future wife, shut down his laptop and gave up, unwilling to risk taking a spot from anyone with that much heart.