There was a time when I began each day by rolling over in bed, opening the window and sticking my hand outside. Sometimes, all my fingers would find was cold, fresh air; but just as often, they’d bury themselves in the fluffy wonder that is Colorado snow. On those snowy mornings, I would pull myself out of bed, throw on boots and a headlamp, and climb out my window onto the roof. There, in the darkness of a winter morning, I would begin the task of shoveling snow.
The house I lived in– though wonderful in many ways– had a flat roof, a questionable design in a climate as snowy as Colorado. If we didn’t shovel snow off the roof immediately, it would begin to melt, and we would be left with water leaking through the old shingles and into the rooms below. So it was that I came to find myself shoveling in the pre-dawn of many a winter morning. Grueling though the work could be, I relished the task. It felt good to take care of my home, to start the day with hands-on work, often joined by my fellow housemates.
With six years between graduating college and beginning medical school, I’ve taken an unconventional path to medicine. The bounty of non-traditional experiences I’ve had along the way– from shoveling snow, to waiting tables, to teaching high-schoolers– have built my resilience and instilled in me an ability to greet challenges with eagerness and composure. No matter what I’m facing, I dig in deep.
I moved to Colorado immediately after college to work as an environmental educator, using my Conservation Biology degree to teach children and adults about the natural world. Though I loved the work, it didn’t pay: I was expected to survive on a minimal stipend in a town known widely for its high cost of living. With college loans demanding the majority of my paycheck, it was clear I needed to get creative if I wanted to continue doing the work that I loved. So, what to do? It was time to pick up my shovel. Knowing that food expenses were a large part of my budget, I set myself the challenge of living on a “free food diet,” and then set about finding farm work to make my plan viable. I spent my weekdays leading educational hikes and teaching environmental science, and my weekends digging in the dirt on a local farm in exchange for an ample load of produce, eggs, and meat. Picking up my shovel and spade, I managed to eliminate my food expenditures for months at a time, allowing me to teach, live in a place I loved, and stay ahead of my college loans.
Much as I loved my education work, I felt a persistent tug to explore a career in healthcare. I signed up for an EMT course through the local community college, taking classes in the evenings and weekends, after I finished work. Several months later, having obtained my EMT license, I applied for a position on Ski Patrol. Trained and certified as emergency responders, it is the responsibility of ski patrollers to provide the first line of emergency care to any guests who suffer injuries or illnesses at the ski resort. During my job interview, the Patrol Director said, “People think ski patrol is all about skiing, but it’s about hard work. It’s up to us to keep the mountain safe; we respond to emergencies, we keep the trails in good condition, and we shovel a lot of snow. Do you think you’re up for that?” Shoveling? I thought. Sign me up!
During my winters as a full-time ski patroller, I threw myself into the job, learning from co-workers who had been ski patrolling for longer than I’d been alive. They taught me how to manage difficult or distracting factors during medical scenarios– such as knee-deep snow, freezing temperatures, or steep terrain– without compromising quality of care, and they showed me how to perform chairlift rescues, mitigate avalanche risks, and, yes, shovel snow efficiently. I continued to live on a tight budget, picking up additional work around the margins of my time as a cross-country ski guide, a waitress, a tutor, and a personal assistant. My coworkers would often laugh in the locker room at the end of the day, as I changed from ski boots and snow pants into my next uniform for the evening. Despite the ongoing juggle of jobs, my experience as a ski patroller affirmed my interest in medicine as a career, while simultaneously planting in me a desire to help patients in more lasting and profound ways as a physician.
With this goal in mind, I moved to Baltimore, MD to complete a pre-medical post-baccalaureate program, trading my Colorado mountains for a mountain of textbooks and a full schedule of pre-med classes. Though I missed my snowy mornings, my clarity of purpose motivated me to shovel my way through the load of accelerated orgo, biology, and physics coursework. I relied on the skillset I built during my five years in Colorado to find balance as I settled into a new home and juggled the demands of school, volunteer work, and side jobs.
My non-conventional path to medicine has continued right up through my medical school admission. After graduating from my post-bac program in May, I intended to spend this upcoming year applying to medical schools, allowing me generous time to seek out external scholarships to offset my cost of attendance. Yet, in an unexpected twist of fate, I was extended an offer of admission from my top choice school, the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, just two weeks before the start of the semester. I had one day to decide whether or not to accept my spot, a frenzied 24 hours where I tried to weigh the benefits of an AMS education against the financial burden of beginning medical school without other sources of funding secured.
Those snowy winter mornings on my Colorado rooftop not only taught me the satisfaction of picking up a shovel; they also taught me that when others see you working hard, they’re likely to lend a hand. From my boss on the farm, who was willing to work out a food exchange with me, to my ski patrol coworkers, who showed me the value of teamwork, to my post-bac classmates, who offered encouragement through the hardest exam weeks, I saw that if I dug in to do the work, others would be there to support me. I am now one month into medical school and delighted to be here, wading through a deluge of histology, anatomy, and cell biology. Whether dealing with a mountain of snow or a mountain of student loans, I’ve learned to set my sights on what I find most important, and then use hard work and creativity to overcome any obstacle that blocks my path. I’ve got my shovel in hand– will you help me dig my way through this debt?