Friday, December 13, 2013

My Personal Statement

Note: One of the more time-consuming and difficult things you must complete for your medical school application is a personal statement. It essentially provides an opportunity for you to tell admission committees who you are, what you value, why you want to be a doctor, what makes you different from the thousands of other applications, and anything else that doesn't really fit into the tidy little boxes on your AMCAS application. It’s an important part of the application for all schools, and a crucial part for some. Outside of your transcripts and whatnot, this is your only chance to convince the school to consider you for an interview.

I briefly wrote about how to formulate a personal statement here in the “How to Get into Medical School” series. One of the more difficult parts of writing it, for me, was not really knowing what it was even supposed to look like as a finished product. With that in mind, I've decided to post mine here – not that this is the only way to do it, by any means, but it’s one way. Whatever you end up writing, you'll most likely think it's the most amazing thing at the time, only to cringe when you look at it several years later (little heavy on the melodrama in mine, I think...). Regardless, I hope that it might help point some of you who are trying to compose your PS in the right direction. Good luck.

Death was no stranger to me. But this one was different--I knew her.  I was working in the patient transport department in a large hospital in Portland. I was new, and only had been working for about a month and a half. It was the middle of a moderately busy Friday evening shift. I sat down to rest my weary feet and to pick up a new job over the phone system. An automated voice came on the line, telling me to take a patient named Katie from the seventh floor to the morgue. My heart sank. I knew this woman. I had recently transported her, and even though she was in the hospital and obviously sick, she hadn't struck me as someone who was on death's doorstep. She was young--not even forty.  Yet here I was, picking up her morgue job. I hung up and reached for the morgue key.  The key was attached to a trapeze handle, apparently to make it easy to find. Most of the trapeze handles in the hospital were bright colors. This one was black. Fitting, I suppose. I left the transportation office, obtained a gurney and a blue tarp to place over the former patient, and began the long walk to the seventh floor of the hospital.  The seventh floor, by the way, was the Oncology unit. Katie had died of cancer.

Death hadn't really bothered me until Katie. But Katie was different. Cancer had struck her down when she had so much life left. And even though I had not really known her, I had cared for Katie and talked with her. She had, to me, been a real person, while the cadavers in anatomy lab and bodies of other patients had been anonymous. They had lived their lives, of course, but I had not been a part of that. With Katie, I had. Who could have known, on that day that I transported her just a few weeks ago, that I would later wheel her dead body to the hospital morgue? Sorry, Katie. We have failed you. Cancer has won this battle.

This was not the first time I had encountered this sense of helplessness.  A few years before Katie, I had the opportunity to travel to Africa.  While I was there, I was mentally wrestling with myself about the future.  When I was younger, I thought I would go into law.  The idea of being presented with an issue, thinking through all aspects and perspectives, and then using logic and argument to debate for one side appealed to me.  The thrill of the contest seemed to provide a rush like nothing else. However, in my first college English class, we were assigned to write the quotidian research paper.  I chose to focus on the medico-legal aspects of stem cells.  Although here again I found the excitement of laying out all sides and making my case, there was something new here.  The potential capabilities of stem cell applications in particular, and medicine in general, contained within themselves the possibility not only of captivating intellectual opportunities, but the real ability to radically change people's lives in a tangible way. It was then that this usurper of my attention, medicine, entered into my life.  I knew it had the potential to cause change, and in Africa, I saw the great need for just that. We spent some time in Kibera, the second largest slum in Africa. People were living in huts built from sticks and mud. Hygiene was poor--walking along the narrow roads between huts, it was generally best to not dwell on what was underfoot.  There was no running water, no formal sewage system. Disease, including HIV/AIDS, was widespread. Change was needed here.  These people needed social help, political help, economic help--but first, they deserve at least to live.  To not be plagued daily by easily preventable diseases. Medicine was necessary for this to become reality, to begin to effect lasting change--and I deeply desire to play a part in this.

A year later, I was working as a lifeguard back in the United States.  It was here that I experienced a rudimentary exposure to medical care, particularly emergency medicine.  The thrill I thought I had found in simple debate was exponentially replaced by the high that came from being presented with an acute problem, whether a simple injury or a drowning patron, accounting for a number of factors that play into the situation, and responding in a way that effected, often, a measurable relief.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  To further explore this, I volunteered in a local emergency room, became trained as an EMT, and worked as an ED Scribe. The more I traveled into the realm of medicine, the more hooked I became.  But in all these positions, the limited level of care I was able to provide bothered me.  I wanted to be able to do more for those I cared for.

The majesty and brokenness of our inner workings have always intrigued me.  But what was crystallized for me in these experiences was a deepening of my desire for change; an urge to take up the weapons of medicine and join in this bittersweet war between life and death--the ultimate debate.  Death is sometimes an ally, but all too often an enemy. I want to fight for those like Katie, for those who live in Kibera, and for those whom Death strives to take too soon after they have lived lives of despair. This is a war that must be fought on many fronts, but one that I desire to fight as a doctor.