Failure in Medical School is Not Determinant

Germán L. Vélez Reyes

Undoubtedly, the first two years of medical school were a life-defining experience. During the first year I realized how naïve and unprepared I was. It is hard to know what to do or how to prepare for something until you have the opportunity to actually experience it. Back in 2011, I decided to leave the comfort of home and an institution where my family had received their education for 3 generations. This definitely took me off my feet and left me “on my own”.

Studying habits have drastically changed from my undergraduate experience, to my graduate and medical education. When I came to medical school, after completing a 2-year postgraduate program at MIT, I became used to solving problems on the spot or in exams. MIT is known for its different way of teaching and open-ended questions, instead of relying on multiple choice testing. On the other hand, during the first two years of Medical School we focus more on the “knowing” rather than the “solving”. On top of that, we have a massive amount of material to understand, memorize and master. Open-ended questions and long answers are not the way to go when assessing large amounts of materials in hundreds of students.

So, as you may have been guessing, I struggled a little, resulting in me failing the Cardiology and Respiratory Medicine final exam in year 2 of medical school. Not surprisingly, it happened again later with 2 SHELF exams. It is hard to understand how this happened and how it continued. I know that there were some distractions in my life, such as working more at my local church and trying to juggle too many things at a time such as relationships and family. That previous summer my grandfather passed away from metastatic pancreatic cancer. The influence he had in my life is unmeasurable.

Some changes were made initially during my second year, so that this wouldn’t happen again and so that I had the knowledge and tools in hand to help my patients. Nonetheless, it did happen again. In order to be better at memorizing and retaining the material, I had to reach out to people, to gather recommendations and tips on how to improve my memorization ability. This played a lot with my pride. I had never had to reach out for help in such a way, and I wasn’t sure how to do it. Up to this point, I was able to easily manage schoolwork and life, successfully gathering excellent grades. Secondly, I had to identify better places to study that had little to no distractions, and other techniques, such as using mnemonics. Thirdly, I had to get rid of my performance-driven attitude and put into perspective the material: now I was not studying to acquire knowledge and do “well”; now people’s lives were at stake.

As an MD/PhD student my program has been pivotal in supporting me. My time as a member of the University of Minnesota MSTP community has been life-transforming. I have experienced life and training in a way that I never expected. Long hours studying while keeping up with my family and faith was challenging. Making friends with my new colleagues in medical school was rewarding, and I enjoyed networking and interacting with researchers at the University. Training undergraduate students in the laboratory helped me solidify my interest in academic medicine. I have become more compassionate and patient during this time. The process of obtaining my PhD taught me the importance of setting both short- and long-term goals, prioritization, time management, and perseverance. Love found me and with it I found my true self. I have been humbled by the process. I realized that the goal of learning medicine is not to get a high score on a test, but rather to become the best physician-scientist I can for the benefit of my patients.

As it is important to have knowledge, it is also important to look out for one’s well being. For me it was pivotal to remain physically and spiritually active. I also treasured even more the value of family, friends, colleagues, etc. Loving people gave me an outlet to let my pride down. It made me vulnerable in a way I never expected. This, in it of itself, is transmitted to patients as well. When we are not doing well from a physical, spiritual, and emotional perspective this becomes self-evident to both our colleagues and patients. We are more likely to rush and skip important steps and/or details. We may become detached from a patient’s situation altogether.

As I applied to residency programs and prepared to interview, I was enthused to go through this process. I encourage my colleagues who have gone through the same or are afraid of failing to continue persevering. Now life has given me another opportunity to grow: I was not able to MATCH this year into an ENT program. At the time of writing this I am still processing this, as this puts a hold on my future plans from a career and financial perspective. I feel disappointed. Although I was prepared, I was hoping for the best and to move forward given my overall preparation. This year, over 20% of MATCH applicants did not place into a residency program. As medical education continues to shift towards a patient-centered approach (rather than score-based approach), plus new positions open across specialties, we will see positive changes in diversity and recruiting of talented physicians. Grades and scores do not make a physician. One should study as much as possible and strive for excellence in both knowledge and practice. Always strive for the best and to do well. At times, we will encounter obstacles and difficulties. Look for help. Talk to your peers and mentors. It takes a village to train a physician. We are not alone in this.


Becoming a Doctor at the University of Minnesota Copyright © 2021 by Germán L. Vélez Reyes. All Rights Reserved.