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There were 1,000 seats at the Jackson Convention Complex for Friday's School of Medicine Match Day 2015, and a large chunk of them were filled by Eric and Heather McDonald's children.
All six of them. Ranging in age from 8 years to eight weeks, they may not have known exactly why they were there, but the oldest knew this much, McDonald said: "It's a special day for daddy."
It was a special day for hundreds of dads, moms, grandparents, siblings and others - but, most of all, for the fourth-year medical students who, like McDonald, learned where they'll complete their medical education as residents training in 21 different specialties, such as pediatrics, surgery, emergency medicine, family medicine, internal medicine and more.
"It feels like it's been a long time coming," said McDonald, who lives in Florence and grew up in Clinton. "But it's been different from what I expected - I knew there would be all the excitement, but then I realized that a bunch of close friends are about to get dispersed across the country."
Nationwide, more than 27,000 first-year residency positions were filled simultaneously in this year's Main Residency Match involving the nation's 141 medical schools. Almost 35,000 U.S. and international students applied, reported the Association of American Medical Colleges. UMMC's Match Day list included more than 120 names.
John Bridges, senior class president, acknowledged that Match Day is steeped in emotion and suspense. "For a lot of us, this is our first job offer," he said to the convention center crowd.
Woodward congratulates Kevin Randolph, who matched in emergency medicine at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
For her part, Dr. LouAnn Woodward acknowledged the contributions of the students' family and friends. "We want the people in this room to understand that the students wouldn't be here without you," said Woodward, recently named UMMC's vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.
She urged those who matched outside UMMC to return to Mississippi one day, as did Dr. James Keeton, her predecessor, in his remarks.
After nearly a year of travel and interviews at multiple institutions, along with expenses and angst, the students put everything in the hands of the National Resident Matching Program; it uses a computerized mathematical system to try and pair the institutional preferences of the students with those of residency program directors.
Jarrett Morgan is one of the 48 students who will do residency training at UMMC - as denoted by the mass of push pins on the map.
"I've never been in a situation where everything is so up-in-the-air like it is now," said aspiring pediatrician Jarrett Morgan of Madison as the matching was about to commence. "I believe I'm a good enough student to stay here; but you never know." As it turned out, he was good enough.
Match Day is an especially nerve-wracking time for students like Zach and Kelly Pippin, who married during their third year of medical school and who, of course, aspired to match matches.
"They put everything into a computer, and I've heard it takes only 17 seconds," said Kelly Pippin, who, like her husband, plans on a residency in internal medicine. "In a matter of 17 seconds, our fate is determined."
In a ritual once described by a UMMC student as a combination of the Academy Awards and the NFL draft for nerds, the name of each student, or couple, was drawn, one at a time.
Keeton, who only recently stepped down as vice chancellor, was selected by the students to draw the first name; it belonged to Kristie Alvarez, a future family medicine resident at UMMC.
Dr. Loretta Jackson-Williams, associate dean for academic affairs, drew the remaining names from the Match Box, calling the students to stand before the audience, open an envelope containing a slip of paper and announce their fate.
Nesbit holds his cash-filled bag as he announces his match
To add more drama to the affair, each year the last student called is awarded a traditional doctor's bag stuffed with a $5 contribution from each of his or her classmates. The day's winner: Brad Nesbit.
"It's a good day," said Nesbit, another internal medicine prospect staying put at the Medical Center. "I make money before I sign the contract."
Most of the students appeared to be pleased during the big reveal. When Julie Dhossche tore open medical school's version of the fortune cookie, she gasped into the microphone.
The daughter of Dr. Dirk Dhossche, UMMC professor of psychiatry, she had been holding hands, somewhat pensively, with her fiancé Tyler Baker, an engineer, shortly before she took the stage.
At the podium, her words tumbled out: dermatology, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland. It was her first choice.
"On one hand I didn't think it would actually happen," she said afterward. "It's a good feeling."
Dhossche could claim the match farthest from Jackson - tied with Madiha Ahmad, an internal medicine resident-to-be at Providence St. Vincent Hospital, also in Portland, Ore.
As McDonald noted, many in the Class of 2015 will be "dispersed" - to Wisconsin, California, Massachusetts, Virginia and so forth.
But a plurality will stay in Mississippi: 52 of the graduates, or 41.6 percent, with 48 remaining at UMMC.
Kelly and Zack Pippin read their Match Day fates together.
They include the Pippins. "We're pretty pumped about it," Zach Pippin said in the aftermath. "We interviewed all over and thought we wanted to leave Jackson. But we couldn't find a place that was better.
"We went to some great places. UMMC had everything we wanted."
"I couldn't be happier," Kelly Pippin said. "These are the people I want to be with and practice medicine with."
The stay-at-homers include McDonald as well. The emergency medicine resident-in-waiting also said he's glad to preserve ties with his medical "family" - a concept the father of six should know something about.
Morgan, the aspiring pediatrician, was also satisfied with his day, except for one thing: He missed winning the bloated black bag by only a handful of draws.
"I really wanted that money," he said.
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