September 17, 2004

Some students don’t go straight to Medical School

Featured Image

Julia Shaklee, third from right, joined AmeriCorps for a year before entering Medical School. Shaklee helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity.

Some students don’t go straight to Medical School

Rob Mutter decided to play professional hockey in France for a year before beginning Medical School.

Rob Mutter decided to play professional hockey in France for a year before beginning Medical School.

Not all aspiring doctors take a straight path from college to medical school. Before taking the plunge of strapping on a stethoscope and putting on their very first white coat, some choose to take a detour down the road of life experience.

Medical school is steeped in tradition, and students who enter it know they are committing to following every step of the pre-laid path of education and training that will be the map for their lives during the next several years. However, many students at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine are finding that sometimes, choosing not to do everything by the book can be very rewarding.

Habitat Houses

Julia Shaklee, a third-year student, wanted to be a doctor her whole life, but when she completed her undergraduate education at Vanderbilt, she knew she was not ready to go straight into medical school.

“I felt that I needed some time away from the life of books, academics, and the classroom, and to get out and have some different experiences in order to broaden my perspective,” Shaklee said.

Shaklee joined AmeriCorps and was sent to Orange County in North Carolina to work as a crew leader for Habitat for Humanity in a rural community called Efland. Though she had no previous experience with construction, Shaklee quickly picked up the tricks of the trade and learned the true meaning of a hard day’s work.

“Doing physical labor teaches you a great deal about what many people in this country do every day. It’s hard work. You come home every day dirty, sweaty, and physically exhausted. And with Habitat, you get to work beside all of the great people who become Habitat homeowners. They’re really inspiring,” Shaklee said.

Shaklee knows the year she spent working with Habitat for Humanity taught her lessons that will be priceless assets to her future practice. “It was a life of service that prepared me for another life of service. I think that in any service field, but in particular medicine, it’s so important to gain experience working with different kinds of people,” Shaklee said. “As physicians, we’re going to have all different kinds of patients with all different kinds of backgrounds, and I think it helps to stand in somebody else’s shoes for a little while so you can understand where they’re coming from.”

Clinically Speaking

Brent Savoie, a third-year student, also believes that the most effective physicians are ones who truly understand their patients’ background and culture. During his undergraduate career at Vanderbilt, Savoie went to Guatemala for five weeks to study medical Spanish. While he was there, Savoie met a Guatemalan doctor who wanted to reopen an abandoned pediatric clinic.

Savoie, along with a friend from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, started going to surrounding schools to talk to teachers and parents about bringing in their children to receive an annual checkup and to get scanned for parasites. Soon, the clinic was seeing more than 40 children a day. Though Savoie had to return to the United States to complete his education at Vanderbilt, he knew he was far from finished with his work at the clinic. After graduating, Savoie decided to delay medical school and go back to Guatemala for a year.

“The new clinic is providing a vital service to an underserved community. The area we work in is a valley with about 14,000 people. There is only one government-funded physician there, so it’s a pretty big job,” Savoie said. “We see pretty much every kid in the valley in the course of a year. That’s about 4,000 kids we serve on an annual budget of about $12,000. So we really rely on volunteers.”

Savoie returned to the United States to attend Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, but he still goes back to the clinic every summer. He has already begun reaping the benefits of his work in Guatemala. During a second year elective in emergency medicine, a family from Mexico came into the Emergency Room. The family had only been in the United States for 10 days, and did not speak any English. Savoie was the only person in the ER fluent in Spanish, and was able to communicate with and provide comfort to the family.

“Just being able to relate to them and communicate with them in Spanish really showed me the value of my experience. It is so important to establish effective communication skills, because a patient’s history can give you more information than a whole battery of tests if you’ll just sit there and listen to them,” said Savoie. “Working in Guatemala and learning to understand the nuances of a culture and a language different from my own taught me to have really good listening skills.”

Skate Saves

Rob Mutter, a second year student and president of his VSM class, believes that just as doctors must learn to listen to the desires and needs of their patients, they must also be able to understand desires and needs of their own. Mutter has always seen a career in medicine in his future, but there were other passions he wanted to pursue as well.

As an undergraduate, he was recruited by Yale to play college hockey, and after graduation, he decided to defer medical school for a year to go play professional hockey in France.

“I knew that once I began my medical studies it would be difficult to take time off. Playing professional hockey in Europe was something I had always wanted to try, and I didn’t want to have any regrets once I got to medical school. I wanted to be able to be passionate about my work and concentrate on becoming a doctor when I got back,” Mutter said.

Mutter believes that having the freedom to explore his other interests heightened his passion for medical studies.

“When I came back I didn’t necessarily view the great amount of time and work I had to put into medical school as a job. I wanted to be here; I had the chance to pursue my other dreams, and now I’m ready to pursue this new dream,” Mutter said. “Vanderbilt was extremely flexible and gracious. They encouraged me to take the time off to pursue that dream.”

Bonnie Miller, associate dean of the Medical School, supports students who wish to follow their own unique desires because they in turn share their experiences, adding dimension and diversity to the student population.

“I think that a truly diverse student body enriches the educational experience by allowing for the exchange of ideas.  I believe that our own beliefs can be challenged by the differing perspectives and experiences of others,” Miller said.  

I hope that we create an atmosphere in which our students are stimulated and excited by the ideas of others, and are able and free to express their thoughts in return with respect and clarity.”