My journey started on a well-traveled road, following the path created by my predecessors. In medical school, my mind focused on a specific specialty: surgery. Still, as a school assignment, I was required to complete a questionnaire about my interests that would return a list of compatible specialties. To my dismay, the list looked nothing like I imagined. The algorithm was clearly wrong. I was going to be a surgeon, not a preventive medicine physician: the first specialty on the list. After I convinced myself that the results were incorrect, I thought of other questionnaires with mistaken results, specifically dating applications; I had heard horror stories. Needless to say, I blocked the notion that a nonsurgical specialty, especially one I did not know existed, could be the right one for me. I continued along the path toward a career in surgery.
Then came Match Day in March, when MS4s are crowded around electronic devices to determine if their hard work had been rewarded, and it was not the best day ever for me. I did not match. But, I am not easily deterred, so I scrambled into a two-year non-designated preliminary general surgery position. The program was known for offering categorical positions to deserving preliminary residents. My performance reviews reflected my hard work, and I was convinced that I would be offered a position when one was available. But, there were no open positions near the end of year two.
At a roadblock, I had no clear way forward. One night, while tossing and turning in bed, considering my dilemma, I suddenly remembered the specialty matching questionnaire I completed in medical school. After a quick search, I was again answering a series of questions about my interests, which had not changed, hoping for confirmation that surgery was the right path for me. When I saw the results, I considered the odds of the algorithm being wrong twice because my primary specialty match was — again — preventive medicine. Instead of dismissing the results a second time, I decided to make a small pivot toward the less-traveled road and learn more about this specialty. As I delved deeper, I realized my error. The assessment had been correct both times and accurately matched my interests in clinical care and public health to the tenets of preventive medicine. My first full step onto the less-traveled road was a meeting with a Preventive Medicine Residency Program Director, which solidified my interest in the specialty. I completed a preventive medicine residency in 2016. The value of my clinical and public health training was fully realized four years later.
The year 2020 will always be remembered as the year that changed everything. When COVID-19 arrived, I had been serving patients for less than one year in a Federally Qualified Health Center and participating on the Clinical Quality Improvement team. Like all other clinics, we immediately had to transform our clinical operations to ensure the safety of our patients and staff. While the other medical providers were senior in clinical experience, I was senior in public health experience. Also, I contributed a unique population health perspective as a board-certified preventive medicine physician. I quickly assumed a leadership role in developing an infection control plan and I became a primary source for assessing employee symptoms and exposures and developing return to work plans for those in quarantine. Each day, I gained a greater understanding of how all of my experiences prepared me for a time such as this. Similar to the rapid movement of the swan’s feet underwater hidden by the graceful motion above the surface, my surgery experience taught me the art of working hard in high-stress situations while maintaining a calm demeanor. The roadblock reminded me that obstacles are an opportunity to reevaluate a situation, consider a new perspective, and move forward. Preventive medicine training taught me that clinical and public health perspectives work synergistically; better together.
Would I have chosen a different journey if I had known what was to come in 2020? No, I would not have changed anything. Starting on the well-traveled road, experiencing the roadblock, and changing direction to the less traveled road were all necessary for my development. My journey continues. As I move forward along the path, I hope that I am leaving a trail for others to follow.
Did you not match into your intended specialty? How did you react? Share your experience with your colleagues below!
Dr. White is a board certified Preventive Medicine physician in Georgia.