Lara Tong

Lara Tong

Lara Tong

When I was 14, I chose to leave home and move to New York City to train full time, year-round at the School of American Ballet (SAB), one of the most selective ballet training programs in the world.  Early years at SAB are crucial.  The talent pool is deep and the spots are few.  Students are constantly culled and many gifted dancers fall behind or are injured.  I was fortunate to have established a strong rapport with my teachers early and could feel my career building momentum, which drove me to push my body harder and harder.  I soon developed a mysterious, debilitating pain in my right ankle that left me unable to perform for 3 crucial years.  Over that time, I saw an endless stream of orthopedic surgeons; none could diagnose me effectively or help me recover.  Many told me, privately and sincerely, to ‘give up and go home’.  I tried everything – icing every day multiple times a day, never-ending physical therapy sessions, iontophoresis and cortisone injections.  Nothing worked.  Growing increasingly frustrated, I obsessively read research articles related to my injury, determined to be additive in discovering the root of my pain.  I studied ankle and foot anatomy to understand tendons, ligaments and bone structures.  I was repeatedly humbled by the limitations of modern medicine.  I’d always naively assumed doctors were infallible and able to cure nearly any ailment.  Over the years I struggled with the frustrations of life as a ‘long-term patient’ as well as the heartbreak of a rollercoaster rehabilitation process.  But slowly, I also grew to appreciate how genuinely impactful a compassionate physician can be.  Not just medically, but emotionally – experiencing firsthand the value of empathetic, ethical, kind doctors.  I realized how much interpretation and ‘art’ exists within the field of medicine; despite all the science, so much is still ultimately left up to human judgment.  Through surgical intervention, I discovered an extra bone had torn my flexor hallucis longus, an integral tendon for strength and control in ballet.  After recovering from surgery, I eventually returned to dance with a healthier perspective around taking care of my body, and a newfound interest in the field of medicine.

Following a decade of training, I was invited to join New York City Ballet (NYCB) at Lincoln Center as a professional ballerina.  I remember a feeling of unbearable excitement, the culmination of a childhood dream.  At the age of 19, I was fully independent, paying for my own rent, living expenses and eventually college tuition.

I am not a ‘traditional’ four-year college candidate; I completed my undergraduate studies over 9 years at 3 institutions.  Throughout those years I worked consistently, pursuing full-time job opportunities in order to pay for my tuition and ultimately my student loans.  This presented unique challenges that I had to overcome, everything from managing a tight personal budget to managing the administrative duties associated with transitioning between institutions, all while maintaining strong academic performance.  While dancing at NYCB, my work schedule and finances could only afford me to take one class each semester.  As a part-time student, I was also ineligible for any merit-based scholarships.  When I took my first premedical course in 2014, it had been nearly 6 years since I last took a science or math class in high school.  But one class at a time, I was determined to complete my undergraduate degree and become a physician.

When I finished my 7th year dancing full time with NYCB, I came to the realization that staying longer meant shutting doors.  It is easy to grow comfortable and many dancers stay through their 30s without a second thought.  I retired early in 2016.  I chose to leave a career I loved despite many good years left ahead of me, to focus all my energies towards pursuing a second career as a physician.  After years of training and performing at the highest levels artistically, I now wanted to bring the same focus towards an effort to help patients in their most vulnerable moments.

When I retired from NYCB, I still needed 2.5 years of full-time studies to complete my degree; however, I no longer had any income to cover tuition.  I was incredibly lucky to have an advisor who saw my drive and potential.  He advocated for me to be one of two students to receive the Rita Gastom scholarship.  With this scholarship, I could afford my college education in addition to Pell grants and some student loans.

In order to pay for my living expenses, I found paid summer internships.  The best paid jobs were, of course, on Wall Street.  After countless interviews and rejections, I spent one summer researching medical device stocks at AllianceBernstein, a public $500 billion asset manager, and another working at J.P. Morgan to help advise hospital endowments.  These experiences gave me a unique perspective regarding the intersection of business and healthcare, helping me to become a more aware, better informed medical professional.  While medical school focuses on the science of treatment, the ecosystem involves a myriad of players, many of whom are financially motivated.  With the healthcare ecosystem becoming increasingly complex, I believe that understanding the larger impact the business of healthcare has on a patient is critical to effective patient care.

My path into medicine may seem like a hodgepodge of random experiences – ballet, finance and a dash of medical volunteering.  But I hope that I can continue to be immersed in a diverse set of life experiences that not only shape me into a compassionate physician, but also a well-rounded individual.  Looking forward, I will be a thirty-year-old woman when I start medical school this fall.  I will have to balance starting a family with beginning an all-consuming medical career.  And despite all the uncertainties and challenges ahead, I have zero regrets and wouldn’t change a thing about my path.  I hope my story can inspire other older women with nontraditional backgrounds to believe in themselves and their ability to pursue a career in medicine.