Each year, at precisely the same moment – noon on the east coast, 9 a.m. on the west – thousands of graduating medical school students across the country simultaneously tear open an envelope. Inside, there is a single sheet of paper and on it, a handful of words. Those words will inform each graduate where he or she will do their residencies, where each will spend the first several years of their careers as working doctors.
It’s called Match Day. Started in 1952 and operated by the non-profit National Resident Matching Program, the event culminates months of applications and interviews by fourth-year medical school students, each of whom may have visited a dozen or more hospitals and institutions across the country in search of their perfect match.
Each student creates a ranking of their choices; each hospital and institution creates its own list of preferred students. A computer algorithm compares the lists, crunches the numbers, generates millions of possible combinations and, finally, produces a single choice for each matched student.
Medical students across the United Stated learn their fates simultaneously on Match Day.
Match Day is a rite of passage for every would-be doctor. This year, it happens Friday, March 18. For most of the 137 members of the 2016 graduating class of the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, who will gather just before 9 a.m. at the Medical Education and Telemedicine Center on the La Jolla campus, Match Day will be a morning and a moment of marvel and mayhem, of uncertainty and celebration. It will mark a new chapter in their already remarkable stories. Here are five:
During the first week of medical school, Deborah Marshall, a graduate of Poway High School and UC Berkeley, spent every spare moment at a hospice home, where her mother was dying of metastatic endometrial cancer. Marshall’s mother was desperate to live as long as she could and radiosurgery brought her several extra months with fewer debilitating symptoms.
“Focusing on my mother’s care and comfort those final weeks of her life while transitioning into my medical training truly changed me,” said Marshall, who also completed a master’s degree in clinical research during medical school. “This evolved into my interest in radiation oncology, and its role in both curative and palliative treatment.”
Four years have now passed since that week Marshall’s mother died and she first put on a white coat. At the moment, Marshall is in India on clinical rotation in radiation oncology, the specialty in which she also hopes to complete her residency training. On Match Day, she plans to live video-chat with a friend and classmate, who will open her envelope for her and reveal the next chapter in Marshall’s life.
After graduating from Dartmouth College, Randy McKnight headed for bayou country, south of New Orleans, to teach physics and chemistry to underprivileged kids. Recalling the many people “who made sure I didn’t fall through the cracks,” it was a way to give back.
“I realized how lucky I was and how privileged I was,” said McKnight, who spent the next four years with Teach for America, a nonprofit focused on educational equity. “I had parents who moved so I could go to a good school district, a high school coach who helped me get recruited by an Ivy League school and a coach at Dartmouth who took a chance on me and put me on the track team.”
At Dartmouth, McKnight studied neuroscience, torn between a career in medicine or education. A calf injury connected him with orthopedists whose care helped him “come back 100 percent.” Then, while working with Teach for America, McKnight met a fellow alumnus who renewed his interest in orthopedics. “He knew the orthopedic surgeons for the Pelicans and Saints (New Orleans’ professional sports teams). I got to go to the clinic with them, where I was introduced to the first black orthopedic surgeon I’d ever met. So many young black kids don’t see black doctors, let alone black orthopedic surgeons.”
The experience cemented McKnight’s decision to pursue medicine, enroll at UC San Diego School of Medicine and become an orthopedist himself. He hopes to remain involved in education, in some capacity, and is passionate about encouraging more African-American youth to study science and medicine. “I want elementary school kids to see a black doctor and to talk about how much fun it is. I want to inspire them to do well in school. We need a lot more of that, particularly in the sciences.”
Robert Thomas III
Robert Thomas III, a chemistry major from Santa Clara University, spent the past nine years earning both his medical degree and PhD in biomedical sciences. He discovered his passion on the first day of medical school: the Student-Run Free Clinic, where UC San Diego School of Medicine students and faculty provide free health care for underserved communities.
Thomas also got involved at the national level — attending conferences on student-run free clinics and publishing the results of a national survey he and others conducted with more than 200 clinics across the country. He continued to work at the Student-Run Free Clinic every week, even during his PhD years when he spent his days in the lab studying a protein involved in heart failure. Thomas’ longest break from the clinic was during the three weeks he spent studying hominid fossils and chimpanzees on a research trip to Tanzania.
Thomas credits his success with the strong and supportive mentorship he received at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “I’ve been lucky beyond my wildest dreams,” he said. “My experiences in medical school far exceeded what I thought I’d be doing back when I applied to programs at age 22.”
Thomas plans to complete his residency training in internal medicine, a specialty he loves because it gives him the chance to build long-term relationships with his patients. He hopes to match with the residency program at UC San Diego Health, which would allow him to continue working with the Student-Run Free Clinic and the local veteran community. Later in his career, Thomas plans to balance patient care, research and education as a faculty member at an academic health care system.
John Wagner grew up in Escondido, attended Palomar Community College and Cal State San Marcos, and then served in the Navy from 2003 to 2012, completing two deployments with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 8 as a helicopter pilot.
Two deeply personal life events motivated his decision to steer a new course in medicine. One was the birth of his 1-pound, 12-ounce daughter Ella, who spent three months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Naval Medical Center San Diego. “My wife and I were there with her for nearly all of it,” Wagner said. “Though it was a stressful and traumatic experience in a lot of ways, it made me want to be a doctor. Nothing seemed as interesting, challenging, important or rewarding as medicine.”
The second event occurred between deployments in the Middle East and the western Pacific Ocean when his mother, who had received poor advice from the family doctor, passed away after a long fight with breast cancer. “I was frustrated and angered by my inability to have prevented what happened to her and I wished that I could have done more. Again, I wondered how things might have been different if I'd pursued medicine.”
After graduating, Wagner plans to serve as a resident physician in family medicine at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
Jessica Cruz Whitley
Growing up, Jessica Cruz Whitley regularly crossed the border into Mexico to accompany her mother for health care. Jessica’s mother could not afford treatment in San Diego for chronic diseases that included hypertension and diabetes.
Watching her mother’s struggle motivated Jessica to pursue a career in internal medicine. She was the first of six children to graduate with a four-year college degree from UCLA. Her parents, who did not graduate from primary school in Mexico, supported her decision to attend UC San Francisco for graduate studies.
While at UC San Diego School of Medicine, Jessica’s mother suffered a stroke and was placed on dialysis. Once again, Jessica was by her mother’s side, drawing inspiration and lessons she would apply to her own patients someday.
Jessica, whose passion is to help underserved and at-risk populations, worked at a clinic that cared for the homeless population in Los Angeles and participated in Program in Medical Education – Health Equity (PRIME-HEq), a partnership between UC San Diego School of Medicine and Lincoln High School to provide health education classes and give medical students real-life experience.
These experiences reminded her of the community she grew up in, one plagued by chronic disease and where patients struggled to be their own advocates. Jessica wants to show her patients how they can be equal partners with their physicians.