I’m very excited to share another success story! Melissa Thomas graduated from West Point in 2004 and commissioned in the Army’s Medical Service Corps, actually deferring the chance to go to medical school for the chance to deploy to the Middle East. After several years as an officer and overcoming personal tragedy, she opted to make the jump. She is currently a fourth year medical student at Yale University.
I started thinking about becoming a doctor sometime during middle school when I envisioned myself as a mad scientist mixing chemicals and finding the cure for cancer. Choosing a military career was an afterthought, as for me in 1999-2000 choosing to go to West Point was just a choice in what college I wanted to go to. I won’t claim I had aspirations or noble thoughts of service, I simply thought running around in the woods with cammo on my face (like in Be All That You Can Be commercials) would be fun and keep me in better shape than a regular college. So I originally planned to go to medical school straight after West Point, and thus majored in Life Sciences and completed all the prerequisites, including the MCAT. However, my desire for medical school got pushed to the backburner after 9-11 happened my sophomore year. When people I knew started deploying, I wanted to deploy and see what that was like, thinking it would be the only opportunity to try out the leadership skills I was learning. I still applied to some schools and deferred my acceptance to USUHS, but also branched medical service corps to stay close to the medical support effort.
My first assignment was a platoon leader with a medical company in a brigade combat team in 4th Infantry Division. We deployed about 18 months after I graduated, so my one year deferment turned into three years to be able to have that deployment opportunity. While deployed, I saw some trauma that was exciting but I also saw sick call 90% of the time, and also was newly married, so spending 4 years apart to go do something I was no longer sure I wanted to do was no longer as appealing. So I decided to continue my path as an Medical Service Corps officer and work towards company command and decided not to pursue the slot that USUHS had held for me.
Next was S4 time, company command and another deployment, then I went to San Antonio for the Army-Baylor course to transition to 70A and become a hospital administrator by earning a Masters in Healthcare Administration and MBA. I was assigned to my first Army hospital at Ft. Carson and started meeting a few Army physicians who heard my story and told me it was never too late to go to medical school, essentially replanting the seed ten years later. There were times during my work in the hospital that I met and worked with physicians who I felt I was just as competent as them (so if they could do it I could it). Also, on the other end of the spectrum, I felt inadequate to do my job at times, that I didn’t have credibility telling doctors what to do on the administrative side since I didn’t have to deal with electronic medical records and other clinical stuff I had no knowledge or experience with.
Within those same couple of years that I was at Ft. Carson as a healthcare administrator, after four deployments of his own, my husband decided to transition to the Reserves and pursue teaching and becoming an outdoor guide, so that was another sign for me that it was possible to switch to the Reserves to pursue a passion. So I decided to retake the MCAT and for six months I would study each day after work. My score went down five points from what I had scored 11 years prior, but I thought it was high enough to get me a few interviews. Luckily, all of the prerequisites I had completed in college still counted and I did not have to retake any classes. I had planned on waiting another year to apply since I still had another year ADSO [Active Duty Service Obligation] for the Baylor course, but another mentor of mine suggested applying anyways and dropping my packet to get out early since it was downsizing time, that the worst that could happen would be they say no and I could just defer an acceptance again. I ended up applying to seven programs, both MD and DO, and got invited to interview at five. I realize now I applied to a lot fewer than most, but I had not sought out much guidance, advice or chat rooms about what was “normal” and it still ended up working out. I think this is mostly due to the uniqueness of the military experience and the attributes you can sell yourself as bringing to the table, since being able to handle stress and providing leadership and teamwork experience is valuable for an incoming medical school class.
While applying and interviewing, my husband died suddenly in an avalanche. My therapist and others advised me not to sign any contracts or make any major life decisions during that time of intense grief, but applying to medical school was already in motion so I considered that a decision I had already made and continued with my final scheduled interview at Yale, which is actually where I ended up going. But essentially, that’s why I got out of the military altogether instead of signing a contract and transitioning to the Reserves. I have a feeling my specific situation is why the Army let me go and did not make me serve that additional year ADSO.
As far as the expense, the GI bill is covering 100% of my tuition, which I was eligible for since I did more than three years past my West Point commitment. Yale does the Yellow Ribbon match for the full amount (~$16K matched), which is actually pretty rare; most medical schools will match an additional $5K or so per year beyond the $23K GI bill (so $33K total) placing you still almost $30K short per year. It’s been important to me to be in close contact with the school registrar as well as the financial aid office, since you as the veteran are often more familiar with the benefits than the school officials that may only deal with it occasionally. I did get life insurance from my husband’s death, but had that not happened I would probably be in the reserves and do loan repayment for anything the GI bill doesn’t cover.
Another resource I have had the opportunity to apply for was the Pat Tillman Foundation scholarship. The Pat Tillman Foundation was created to honor the memory of Pat Tillman, an NFL player who left a multi-million dollar contract to join the Army and serve after 9-11 and was tragically killed in Afghanistan in 2004. PTF provides scholarships to active duty, veterans, and spouses of all services, enlisted and officer, to pursue their passions and also provides a community and network of scholars who are dedicated to lifetime of service to their communities, and leaders in their fields. They adapt each individual’s scholarship amount based on need, and usually select a handful of students pursuing a medical degree each year.
Going to medical school after being away from basic science for so long has been a challenge. I felt especially behind my peers in biochemistry and physiology. I took the old MCAT version with the physics and organic chemistry, so it’s possible that the new version of MCAT actually better prepares matriculants than it did me. That being said, by putting the time in to study and get on par with your peers is certainly doable and I’m glad I’ve taken the path I did. Once I got past the classroom portion, I really found a home on my clinical rotations; self-confidence can go a long way in being less nervous than your peers about presenting to attendings or receiving criticism or feedback, and quickly understanding the hierarchy in medicine.