I was debating for a long time now regarding whether or not to post here...sadly my dream of becoming a physician has not, and will not ever be realized. However I would still like to share my story, which I will reluctantly call a success story (though really, only time will tell). It's going to be long (as an after note: It took me about 2.5 hours to type), and I apologize in advance. I don't mean to be presumptuous here and assume that anyone really cares about my story, but I am thinking of writing an autobiography as it would likely be fairly entertaining.
Early life, leading to why I want(ed) to be a physician
I was born to a poor family - we're talking the kind you'd see on TV shows poking fun at poor families. The kind with kids that would wear dirty clothes with those little animated stink lines coming off of them (indeed, clothes were a luxury). My parents tried their best... my mother was incapable of working, and my father worked those insecure, dangerous jobs to support us, though those never seemed to last. He'd try to balance his time between shift-work and helping to enrich the lives of his kids, particularly academically. See he didn't have the opportunities I've had - he started a university degree but was unable to complete it as he couldn't pay his tuition. Despite this, he was brilliant and resourceful, he read many books that he'd pick up for free here and there (math, science and history books mostly) and would pass his knowledge on.
I had a knack for it - I learned mathematics very quickly and early (it would be no exaggeration to say I was doing calculus, and understanding it, in grade 3) thanks to his guidance and it ultimately shaped the rest of my life, as well as my academic interests. I was a straight A student who had the talent, and the brains to know that I needed to work hard. I had many things in childhood that I would say make me quite privileged, a father who gave me the time of day, and a traditional family that treasured the concept of a tight-knit family. "We don't need money to be happy" my mother would always say.
As some of you may attest to, able-bodied people never really notice say, handicap parking spaces, or ramps/elevators until you either have a disabled friend/family member, or break your leg and have to use an assistive device. That being said, life is immensely difficult for the unwealthy, and you could never really understand the stigma unless you've been forced to live it. Statistically speaking, someone in my family should be an alcoholic (just based on numerical data) and granted, if we had the money to spend on it, at least one of us probably would have been. True or not, I was certainly treated as a drug abuser/alcoholic/future criminal by many I interacted with, other students, even many of my elementary school teachers (one of whom likely made the observation, and then gossiped to the rest).
A turning point came in grade 6, I took it very personally when I wasn't selected for an academic award in math. I don't think I can accurately portray why this bothered me so much (perhaps it's even one of those irrational "kid things") despite having aced the EQAO (literally, my principal called my parents in to congratulate me) and placing 1st in the province in a UWaterloo math contest for grade 9s. To this day I don't know what basis I wasn't selected on, but the thing that immediately sprung to mind back then, and I have yet to shake from my mind, was prejudice. I felt discriminated against despite all of my hard work, and the only reason I could think of for being discriminated against, was being poor.
So naturally, I "rebelled" against the school, and my parents who were upset with me for not being picked (and had somehow assumed I was being lazy, and took the teachers' side...man, don't you wish parents still had teachers' backs? Haha), naturally my marks dropped like a rock. If I'm not going to be appreciated/acknowledged for my effort, why put the effort in? If I wouldn't be able to afford going to university and getting a good job anyway, why should I bother? From Grade 6-10 my marks went from high 90s to low 70s and even 60s...kind of wish I could go back and time and slap myself, but don't we all.
In grade 11, the kindness and support from one teacher helped me turn things around - I was in desperate need of corrective lenses (for probably about 10 years by that point) and simply couldn't afford it...so my teacher advocated to the school admin, who wrote me a cheque and told me to go get an eye exam done and buy some glasses. I was moved by this gesture, here was someone who not only didn't see me as "that smelly kid who's going to end up a criminal" and instead felt compassion. As you'd expect, I began to try once more and my marks immediately jumped back up into the 90s. In grade 12 I had that game-changer moment - I realized I could go to university, a thought which had never occurred to me. To get into the program I wanted, it required I do a "victory lap" year (as I hadn't taken enough science up to that point) to fill in the last science.
The real game-changer - why medicine?
About a month before beginning my victory lap year of high school, my dad woke me up one morning at about 6am saying his chest hurt and that he wanted to sleep on my bed as it was more comfortable. I went and slept on the couch without giving it another thought, he was perfectly fine after all. A few hours later when I woke up again he was insisting he needed to go to the hospital. My mom didn't take him seriously and kind of rolled her eyes at him, and so she sent me with him to the ER. We had to take the bus as we had no vehicle. Upon arriving at the ER, we found out my father's health card was expired by about 5 months or so, and were given a sheet outlining the various medical costs we'd incur. Naturally being unable to afford any of it, we immediately went downtown to get his card renewed. We had just done so and were on our way out of the building when he collapsed from a heart attack on the elevator down. The paramedics arrived after what felt like an eternity (it always does, doesn't it?) and pronounced him dead on arrival. I was dumbfounded, he had no family history, no prior episodes, and seemed perfectly fine even the day before. He was also in his 40s...his only real risk factor that I'm aware of was, you guessed it, being poor.
This instilled in me a burning hatrid/fear of both, elevators, and the current medical system. I had vowed to do everything I can to become a doctor so I could do my part in preventing tragedies like this.
As if coping with the loss wasn't bad enough, there went our family's sole financial provider (my mother is disabled). Despite this I finished up my final year of high school while battling what I can only assume was undiagnosed depression, using studying as a coping mechanism. I memorized my biology textbook front to back (even the obscure vitamins/minerals in table form) as I'd read it for about 7 hours a day while remaining focused on that goal. Thankfully I applied to university and was accepted to every program I'd applied to, and some even had a fairly respectable entrance scholarship. I chose a Kinesiology program that was local as I wanted to cut down on costs.
Things did not look up for long however and eventually the OSAP/scholarship funds dwindled. By December of my first year, we were unable to pay rent and by February, we were evicted, with nowhere to stay and little money to feed ourselves with. We were homeless. Being the eldest male I took it upon myself to try and find work, so I wound up finding a job at a steel refinery, drilling holes into locomotive parts. Unfortunately I could not keep up and had to make a difficult choice - should I give up university to go work full time in the steel mill to feed my family?
I decided not to, after consulting my family...they didn't want me to drop out like my father did, and instead I looked to tutoring. I applied for, and was offered a TA job and also began tutoring local students in first year calculus. However I was so desperate that I did not charge a competitive rate - I sat in the math building of my alma mater with a sign that read "Need help, will tutor (math course codes) for food :(" hoping for passers by to take me up on my offer...and they did. I thought it was smart to sit beside the cafe/deli so people could just buy a sandwich and give it to me in exchange for an hour of calculus help.
Unfortunately, some people are inhumane and would call security on me, so I had to convince my university that I had extreme financial need. They offered me a bursary, allowed me to continue tutoring but asked me not to hold up the sign as that "detracted from the university environment" whatever that meant. So we compromised, I sat near a blackboard with "Calculus Help! Will take a sandwich :)" written on it. The university accepted this, as it made it appear more like a school function, and didn't look "quite so homeless." I would now find that a bit insulting, but I was thankful for anything I could get.
It was at this point that I abandoned my hopes of becoming a physician. My colleagues were all gearing up to take the MCAT that summer with their fancy prep courses and books, and here I was struggling to feed myself and clean my clothes. I was crushed, but kept telling myself "People like me don't become doctors." It helped a bit...
That continued for about a month... and thankfully I saved up enough to pay off the landlord and move into a new place. But it didn't last... I'll never forget that sinking feeling, that defeated feeling in my heart when I realized it was almost exam time. You might think I was worried about my own exams, given I had very little time or motivation to study, but that had nothing to do with it. That meant the semester would break for the summer which meant two things - First, my TA work would be over, and secondly, the demand for tutoring would drop...both of which supported us for the time being. I was utterly heartbroken, and terrified.
But a miracle happened - my mom came into some money from the government which provided enough to pay rent and utilities. We were set, and I had a place to live...the ordeal was over!
I finished my first year with a 3.0 GPA...a proverbial premed hole that, to this day, I've been unable to climb out of.
The rest of my B.Sc. - an important switch
Years 2-4 were relatively uneventful with only mild crises occurring. Unfortunately in nearly every one of those years, I had to drop a course due to some pressing financial need (ie. in second year I dropped a course because my mom needed some medication, and I got about a $400 refund on the course). I had a strong upward trend, 3.7 in both my 2nd and 3rd years. At this point I decided that I had virtually no chance at getting into medical school (rightfully so from the looks of it), so I began looking for other options.
I had met my better half during those years as well, whose moral support has almost certainly kept me from suicide. She was a math major and one year my senior (due to that victory lap year)... despite having had a real knack for math, I hadn't taken any of it at university besides elementary calculus. I got numerous course waivers to take some upper year math courses with her and developed my love affair with math even further - it didn't matter that I'd skipped about six courses, when I took that advanced course in topology I killed it and loved it...so I switched to math in my final year, overloaded with 12 3rd and 4th year math courses (to meet the minimum number of credits needed to graduate) and nailed it, with a 3.9 that year. Unfortunately even that is kind of "meh" by premed standards.
What comes next? More education of course
Those particular courses, so-called "Pure" math (or "theoretical math" to the layman) take a special kind of person to take. That paired with the fact that I was attending a university with a fairly small math program, implied that my upper level courses rarely had more then about 5 people in them. I was the star of those courses once again, just like in elementary school, and so I stood out amongst my peers, and was coerced into applying for a masters degree in the field. "People like me can get masters degrees?" Keep in mind, no one in my family has ever completed university before...and now I was considering doing a Masters? Was I crazy? Could I even manage it?
What followed were easily the best two years of my life. I received some funding which helped immensely and I had a brilliant supervisor who taught me so much about life, reality and how to live. I specialized in a niche-field of mathematics known as knot theory (quite literally - using complicated math ideas to explain/differentiate between different knots). I began reading all about DNA and how the "Unknotting number (a mumbo-jumbo math idea)" is a quantity that was preserved via gel electrophoresis, and that charge/mass/other obvious things didn't explain it as well as this crazy math idea. I began writing a book on the subject as part of my dissertation, stumbled upon a cool new field that just came into existence ("Virtual" knot theory) and began corresponding with professors in Japan, where the field was in its infancy. Imagine having to look up articles in your field, then using google translate on them because the only ones in existence were Japanese! I taught my supervisor about it, and the field has since grown in the western world, and I played a part in it which I'm rather proud of. I wrote the first english textbook on the subject, and in the process, proved a really cool theorem that I accidentally stumbled upon...this constituted my research thesis.
Unfortunately I had a falling out with one professor in my department who, sadly, was an expert in a related field whose support I really needed to pursue doctoral studies. I did not feel like fighting it and got depressed once again, feeling as though my life was a big joke. "People like me don't become doctors" I was still telling myself, only this time I meant it as a "PhD" kind of doctor. Searching for a new path was when I re-realized my dream to be a physician. Unfortunately, I was as non-traditional as they came - no pre-requisites, no MCAT, no hospital involvement, and no "premed-y" stuff at all. I used some of my grant money to write the MCAT for the first time, but unfortunately I scored rather mediocrely so I chose, like a broken record, not to pursue medicine. "People like me don't become doctors." Instead I applied to teacher's college and was accepted.
Teacher's Ed was fairly uneventful for me, but sadly the Ontario Government imposed new regulations on hiring practices for teachers...as I was finishing up teachers college. It now takes on average 6 years for a teacher (once they become a supply teacher) to become a full time teacher. Naturally, despite having done everything right IMHO, I just couldn't land that coveted supply teacher job...for 3 years (and counting) so I can't even start the counter on those 6 years, and they only open the supply list once per year (it's a lot like med apps, haha). If it's going to take me at least 6 years to become a teacher, why wouldn't I pursue med school? I'd have to be an idiot not to try, right?
So there I was - three degrees, a lot of education-related debt, and not really employable...so I went full force into two things - tutoring math and science (which I had done all along, and now command a rather respectable hourly rate with all of my credentials), and obsessing over this idea of becoming a physician.
Fixing myself for the adcoms
I applied for the first cycle after finishing my B.Ed. (2013-2014) to the only schools I satisfied the requirements for (I still don't have those pesky orgo pre-reqs) - Queens, Mac and UofT. I told myself "If I can land that interview, I know I can nail it...I have so much I can talk about! But I don't look very good on paper, I realize that, so I may never get the chance. If I get an interview, I will reapply, if not, I won't." Queens and Mac rejected me early in the process, but UofT held onto me until the last interview spots were filled. It was utter agony to be kept waiting that long! But it gave me renewed confidence - UofT was interested, maybe with a different applicant pool, or slightly improved stats, I could get an interview spot! It was around this time that I joined PM101.
So I had a renewed passion, I was surrounded by colleagues in similar, or even worse situations, who were all supporting each other and pulling toward that same goal. In no small way, has this forum and its kind people impacted my journey and for that I'm thankful. I began to study incredibly hard for an MCAT re-write, saved up money and got some help from my mother in law to pay for books and AAMC Practice Tests, and OMSAS fees, so I was off to the races. By the end, my score was in the high 30s! I was pumped, wrote the test...and scored significantly lower on test day, but still had a respectable 12/10/11.
I began volunteering like crazy too, at a hospital notably (as I had no prior clinical experience) and with the elderly, particularly with dementia patients and those with special needs/mental disabilities. A truly humbling experience, but it wasn't always rewarding as it can be extremely difficult. Regardless I did what any premed would do - I manned up and did it, and I tried my best. Over the past few years (beginning before teachers college) I also helped pilot a youth centre for underprivileged kids where I taught them math and breakdancing and tied them together. It was tremendously successful, and I began managing the finances over this past year. Unfortunately, it's a non-profit so this didn't provide me with any income!
Unfortunately because of all of this investing of time and money into med apps, my very carefully budgeted/balanced finances for myself and my family didn't really hold up. My family began to have problems paying their bills as I couldn't siphon money their way, and there have been several close calls that could have resulted in a similar ordeal to that dark time during my undergrad. I felt (and still feel) horribly selfish for pursuing my dreams against all odds this past while.
Another Dark Period
In January of this year, I received a rejection from Mac and Queens. Queens disappointed me tremendously and infuriated me. I was finally over their cutoffs, it was supposed to come down to extracurriculars, and wow what a story I've got! This was my year... but sadly, it wasn't so. I harboured an incredible amount of resentment - why have I been wasting my time and energy? Why has my hard work never been beneficial? Why does everything I touch seem to turn to crap? I've wasted the past x years of my life....etc.
It was so difficult to keep the feelings inside, to feel like all I've done in my life is give to others and try my best, only to have life and the people in it give nothing in return. It felt so right, that I'd make a career out of helping others because it was what came so naturally to me... I was furious and not myself for several days, to the point where some of my loved ones were crying, intervention-style, telling me they didn't want me to become some broken person...and I finally had access to something I hadn't had previously, which concerned them: alcohol.
Before things got too dire I snapped out of it, thanks to my better half. If I didn't have enough moral support, I may have ended my life right then and there. All I could see were rejection letters, financial difficulties, and biological clocks spinning out of control...I needed my way out.
My Success? It's all in how you look at it
I began to look into alternatives at this point, including other programs, or jobs I could do with my current education level. I stumbled upon a few that clicked with me, ranging from chiropractic to mathematical finance, to computer science, to a doctorate in theoretical physics of all things. I applied, and naturally, got into all of them (except for some I'm still waiting on). I realized at this point that even though I'm not meant to be a doctor, I've still overcome tremendous odds and will continue to overcome these odds. I'm still a pretty darn smart guy, and I've done really well for myself.
I had an interview for a particularly competitive program (but one more up my alley in terms of being math-y), where the interviewer wound up boasting about why I was great, instead of the other way around. It was ridiculous, all these things that adcoms didn't think were enough impressed nearly everyone else in every other walk of life. I was accepted, nearly instantly, to a highly competitive professional masters program (they only accept 6 students, 1 guaranteed from Canada, 5 more international, and it's the only such program in Canada) which promises a really good salary at the end of the day. Best of all, it's employable - it takes very specialized math skills so they can't train very many people at a time. Apparently, I have a skill set which clearly the med adcoms do not value, but which made me a perfect match for this career.
So I had to make the judgement call - turn down my offers and try for medicine again (and risk having my family become homeless again during the next year or two), or accept...I'd be foolish not to. Sure it's boring and not my passion, but I will gladly take this offer. The program is expensive so I'm currently in the process of procuring a loan with some difficulty due to my "shady financial history" (ie. I was born into the wrong family).
With this, I slowly but surely, gave up the fantasy of becoming a physician. "People like me don't become doctors" is something I'll be telling myself for a long time now...but with each passing day, I can finally feel that resentment slipping away. If adcoms don't want me, then it's their loss...not mine. It's time to build my new life and say good bye to my old one.
And right on schedule, a few days ago, UofT sent me my final rejection. Ironically, despite devoting all that time and energy to bettering myself, I did worse this year. I was not interview wait-listed, which means I have no idea how far into the process I got.
The conclusion - my new dream, the moral of the story, and farewell
"People like me don't become doctors....they become good people and good parents."
My new dream is not to be a doctor, but instead to provide my family and children with the ability to follow their dreams unhindered...and I will do this even if it means sacrificing my own personal desire to be a physician. This is a dream that I can finally see come to pass.
Don't be fooled, not even for a second - if you're here reading this, you are destined for greatness. You're the cream of the crop, even if medicine doesn't work out... even if life hasn't been kind to you... I promise you. Things will improve.
- LostLamb, loodogg, Siefer1322 and 52 others like this