Every year, as the College of Medicine starts to hum and bustle again in August, a new class of future MDs take to the halls and classrooms anticipating four years of hard work leading to their ultimate goal of finding their specialty, and joining the ranks of Canada’s physicians.
But, however exciting the next four years will be for them, one of the more fascinating aspects about our students are the varying paths they’ve already taken to get to medical school. For some, this is where they always wanted to be, and for others it’s a second career they’ve decided to enter. We touched base with a few of our incoming students to highlight some of the paths they've taken to the CoM.
A lifelong interest in healthcare began to solidify 11 years ago when Alixe Dick began working with the Student Wellness Initiative Toward Community Health (SWITCH) a student run nonprofit that helps to provide outreach and clinical care in Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods.
After completing a first degree in Microbiology and Immunology, she took a gap year and went to Vancouver. During that time she increased her involvement in student run clinics by consulting and helping open clinics in Australia, England, and other locations in Canada.
"It's a really good experience for students to learn what it takes to run a healthcare clinic - what's involved in healthcare and what services patients need to be healthy,” she explained regarding her decision to work for a time in consulting.
It was while she was in Vancouver that Dick started questioning whether she was ready to go straight into medical school, and worried about the commitment involved in jumping right in. To continue learning in the healthcare field she made the decision that nursing was a good first step. Once in nursing it became apparent that her heart definitely was in medicine, and after a year working at St. Paul’s as an emergency room nurse she took her MCAT and applied the medical school.
And that time at the hospital provided her with some unique advantages in her first year at the CoM.
"Nursing is very practically focused," Dick continued. "For example, you know the steps that are going to be taken when a person has a heart attack, the tests that are going to be ordered, and the medication that's going to be given. However, I do not fully understand the physiology of the heart as well as a physician does.
"I am really looking forward to enhancing my knowledge and developing the skills needed for the clinical setting."
There was no big revelation for Preston Njaa when it came to realizing that he wanted to go to medical school – instead it was the culmination of a series of smaller choices and influences that led to the decision.
“It’s not like I had a day where I decided I wanted to be a doctor,” Njaa explained. “But my grandpa was diagnosed with cancer when I was 15, (and) that was the first time I saw the other side of what it means to be a doctor. I got to see how the quality of care affected his wellbeing outside of his cancer diagnosis.”
A lifetime of athletics, including some time playing for the Saskatoon Hilltops in the Canadian Junior Football League, meant that Njaa had an inborn interest in exercise and health and followed that to an honours kinesiology degree - and now to the CoM.
“I didn’t apply anywhere else,” Njaa continued. “I feel like I want to end up here because of all of the things that I’ve been given in the community and I hope eventually practice here in Saskatchewan if I’m able to.”
And while it’s too early to decide definitively on a specialty, both family medicine and cardiology interest Njaa as well as oncology because of his familial experience with cancer.
Until then, he’ll balance his school workload with some football coaching for a Saskatoon minor football program called Tykes on Spikes for kids under the age of five.
“I enjoy that the kids are complete blank slates when it comes to football,” Njaa explained. “So you kind of get to be in the formative years of the skills, and that’s exciting. I guess that’s kind of what excites me about medical school too – that it’s basically a completely fresh start.
“We all come from very different backgrounds, and it’s a total equalizer where there are people in our class with different backgrounds like architecture, music, physiotherapy, and people who – like me – did an undergrad degree and are starting to create our own paths.”
It’s not uncommon for students to immediately start a postgraduate program once their undergrad is behind them – but when it came time to figure out what he was going to do after graduation, Erik Yip-Liang wasn’t sure he wanted to jump straight in.
“It’s been about three years since I’ve graduated, and when I graduated I was in a bit of a conundrum because I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do,” Yip-Liang explained. “I had a lot of friends who jumped right into a Masters’ program, and I think that was probably what I was leaning towards – but I didn’t really know what comes after that.
“I think when I graduated there was a real realization that while you’re at school you’re working towards something, there’s a goal at the end of it, and if you’re not sure what that is it might not be a good idea to keep going down that road if you don’t know where you’re headed.”
So with his Bachelor of Science, with a focus on chemistry and pharmacology, at the University of Toronto done, he decided to take some time off to work and do some volunteering before making a final decision on choosing the right road. A year into his hiatus, Yip-Liang had decided that medicine was the career that he would enjoy the most.
“I started working at a walk-in clinic a little bit to get experience – doing mostly administrative work for sure – but you get a lot of insight, (and) you get some really nice mentors and the physicians there were really kind in sharing their knowledge and answering my questions.”
And while he hasn’t made a decision on what he’d like to specialize in, his experiences as a camp counsellor for international high school students while he was at UofT has him leaning towards pediatrics.
“They came to the university and spent a couple of weeks or months learning about medicine or law in tiny modules,” Yip-Liang continued. “At the time I didn’t realize it, but it really affected who I ended up becoming – it really made me realize that I genuinely enjoying talking to, and learning about, different people.
“(And) it’s still surreal sometimes, waking up and thinking ‘I’ll be a doctor in a few years…’”