What does driving 200mph in a circle and medicine have in common? This week, I invited Patrick Staropoli, a fourth-year medical student who matched into Ophthalmology but who also happens to race cars on the NASCAR series and elsewhere in Florida during his spare time. How does he actually get to manage all of this and be able find that balance?
In this episode, you will learn more about time management, keeping that strong commitment to medicine, and the importance of cultivating your passion outside of medicine to maintain that sanity as you’re going through your premed journey, or medical school, or residency.
[01:20] Interest in NASCAR Driving and Medicine
Patrick’s interest in racing started as a young kid because he grew up going to the race track. He was six months old the first time he ever went to a race and just grew up in the race track being there every Saturday night. He started doing go-carts at thirteen years old and progressed his way up for the last thirteen years.
He initially had a deal with his parents that if he wanted to race, he was to get straight A’s in school so this became a motivating factor for him to do well in school. At that point, he then started to like science and math that school has now become his primary focus. Racing is something he would do for fun but school is what he knows would secure a good future for himself. So all through elementary and middle high school, he got all A’s and continued to race which opened doors for him to do cool things like going to Harvard for undergrad and now, University of Miami for med school (considering that no one in his family has ever gone to college).
It was during college when Patrick realized medicine is what he wanted to spend his life doing as a profession. He was involved in Unite For Sight, a nonprofit organization that gave free vision screenings to underserved communities in. This was his first ever participation in any kind of healthcare and it practically opened his eyes how cool medicine was and that’s what sold him to do it. At that point, medicine simply took over. Now, racing was only something he could do for fun.
[06:00] Similarities between Racing and Medicine
While a lot of younger drivers are actually gearing towards mechanical engineering or marketing considering how essential the business side of the sport is. In his case, Patrick went to college thinking he wanted to engineering and started off taking all the prereqs for advanced engineering classes, which happened to overlap with the premed prereqs.
While medicine and racing seem to be two different fields, Patrick found how similar they actually are with regard to identifying the problem, coming up with a differential diagnosis, and figuring out the treatment with the least amount of side effects. Hence, having experience in both areas has made him better in both.
Ultimately, Patrick’s primary interest is in doing something for a living that is intellectually challenging and that can help people. So he found his calling in healthcare than in engineering.
I, personally, am a computer programmer at heart and spend a lot of time writing computer codes. And it’s the same thought process of identifying the problem and figuring out different ways to get to that solution. It’s the same process in many different arenas so it just depends on the medium.
[09:55] The Planting of the Seed in Medicine
Back in 2001, Patrick’s dad got into a bad car accident so he had to be lifted out of the race track and brought into the hospital (where Patrick is currently training as a medical student). Luckily, his dad was saved and was able to watch how his dad slowly progressed. Witnessing this at eleven or twelve years old, any time something significant happens that early in your life shapes and molds you in some way and it stays at the back of your head as you move forward. And that’s what happened with Patrick has he went through college and learning all that stuff about medicine. All that definitely played a role in shaping the direction Patrick took.
[12:05] Balancing Medicine and Racing
Patrick had a few options to choose from when it came to college. What he liked about Harvard is the financial support given to students, a scholarship which Patrick needed to afford going to college. Growing up in Fort Lauderdale all his life and his parents never going to college, he thought it was the best way for him to also learn on a social level. True enough, he lived with four roommates from four different countries and he learned as much as he did working in a classroom. Except for the coldness, overall, it was a great experience for him
During college, Patrick still got to race during his breaks. He recalled how he went home for Senior spring break and went racing all week. Race care driving and medicine have always been the balance in his life and this has continued even through his medical school. Every time that he would have the opportunity to race but without affecting his learning and hospital duties, then you’d definitely find him in a race car.
How does he balance all this? Patrick says it’s all about prioritizing, time management, what things need to be done and in what particular order. When it came time to study for the board exams, he had to clear everything off the table and there was no racing for three to four months. His focus was 100% on school to get through the board exams.
Now that he’s coming to the end of fourth year and has more elective time, he gets to have weekends off so he plans out the races in advance and cut out the time to work on his car or for NASCAR races, he works with sponsors to figure out what races on their schedule will match up with his school schedule so the timing works out to have the flexibility to fly out to where the race is. Although there are lots of apps out there, Patrick only uses Google Calendar to manage everything on his plate.
[17:15] The Impact of a Unique Experience on Your Application
Path-wise, Patrick is a traditional medical student but experience-wise, he is nontraditional. Whether his racing experience played into his ability to get into a good medical school, Patrick thinks it goes both ways. Having something unique definitely helps anyone stand out and be unique through the entire process but it also raises a lot of questions. Hence, you need to be prepared for both sides of the coin. It helps you get your foot on the door but you also have to be able to defend it and show your real passion, where you see yourself everyday, and where your heart really is in medicine.
Why not make the most of his racing career now and then go back and do his residency later? Patrick says racing is tough to break into and stay there. It wasn’t until three years ago that he got his spot on the NASCAR after joining a reality TV car racing competition and winning the grand prize of one race in NASCAR. He finished fifth and that one race led to five more races where he ended up winning one of those and finishing in the top ten in all of the other ones. Without a sponsor to continually back you for majority of the seasons, a lot of the bigger teams are not going to pick you up. At this point, Patrick has already done he could do blow up his racing career having completed tracks he has always wanted to race at and having taken every opportunity that has come his way. He has basically given himself 100% to racing and feels he has not left anything on the table so he’s able to keep up with the medical school career at the same time. Right now, he’s still able to do full throttle on both.
Patrick further believes that being as busy as he is right now, in being able to balance school, racing, and traveling places, is definitely going to help prepare him for being a physician in the future.
[23:29] The Hardest Part as a Medical Student
Patrick considers the board exams as the hardest part of being a medical student. The mentality to sit down and study for 10-12 hours a day, several weeks in a row is something he never had to push himself that far beyond to do before. Just when you thought studying for a week to prepare for a test in college felt like you gave up a chunk of your life, you’d realize you just spent the last month and a half of your life studying for the board exams. So it’s a lot of pressure. Patrick could go 200 mph at Daytona and not sweat it but cramming for a test is just daunting. He also adds that third year was tough in terms of hours and always working in the hospital being in the wards but there was a lot more social interaction with that so he didn’t mind it as much as locking yourself up in a room to study.
Between going 200 miles in a car and being in the operating room, what Patrick finds as more anxiety-provoking for him is the latter since at this point in time, Patrick is still trying to absorb and learn as much as he can every single second versus racing which he has been doing for over 13 years now. Sure, he only raced at Daytona one time but it was exciting but not as scarier because he feels like he has had enough experience to be confident.
Being in medical school, you’re relatively inexperienced compared to everybody you’re around and you’re learning from at every stage and that could be daunting until you can get that knowledge and experience under your belt.
[25:53] Future in Ophthalmology and Community Involvement
Having great mentors who have shown him that you can have an awesome work-life balance and be very involved in multiple areas (clinical, research, academics), he sees himself going into one of those roles in the future and being part of academics. Having that variety of tasks to do everyday, nothing is going to get repetitive or be monotonous.
Beyond that, AutoNation Drive Pink Campaign has been his sponsor in racing. The campaign seeks to raise breast cancer awareness. They also ran a special pink paint scheme that promotes The AutoNation CureBowl, a college football game held every year in Orlando where all proceeds get donated to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Over the last two years, the campaign has raised about 2.2 to 2.3 millions dollars. Although Patrick says he just plays a small role in driving the car and serving as a spokesperson, it’s still awesome to be part of something that big and racing has given him that platform and outreach to get to a lot of people and deliver important messages.
In the future, he hopes to find ways to use racing in promoting things that are important in ophthalmology such as preventable blindness, which is a huge issue worldwide. They’re now coming up with much more cost-effective ways of screening for vision problems and getting people hooked up with the care they need to prevent them from going blind later in life. Patrick hopes to be able to connect these two passions down the road.
[29:22] Patrick’s Final Words of Wisdom
Patrick admits it’s tricky and it’s a never ending process. He matched. Fourth year is almost over. But he’s still trying to knock out projects and get the race car ready for some races coming up. So you’re never able to find that perfect balance but it comes down to making sacrifices and knowing what you’re willing to give up in a certain area to be able to achieve something more in a different area. Everybody has their own balance they’re comfortable with. Almost on the other side of med school now, Patrick says it’s worth it if you stay true to yourself and do what you want to do with your time that when you look back on it, you’re not going to regret anything. If he had to do again, he wouldn’t change any single decision he made because he put the time in and he did it.
[30:54] My Final Thoughts
The commitment it takes to follow your dreams of becoming a physician while pursuing another passion outside of medicine is not easy. If you have passions outside of medicine, I highly encourage that you have passions and continue to cultivate them as you’re going through the premed process, medical school, and residency for your sanity.
Lastly, if you’re struggling with studying for the MCAT and your test scores are plateauing, check out Next Step Test Prep. They can work with you one-on-one to help you figure out your issues. Use the code MSHQ to save some money off their offerings.
Dr. Ryan Gray: The Premed Years, session number 227.
Hello and welcome to the two-time Academy Award nominated podcast, The Premed Years, where we believe that collaboration, not competition, is key to your premed success. I am your host Dr. Ryan Gray, and in this podcast we share with you stories, encouragement, and information that you need to know to help guide you on your path to becoming a physician.
What does driving 200 miles an hour in a circle basically and medicine have in common? We’ll find out in this episode. This week I had the privilege of interviewing a fourth year medical student who matched into ophthalmology, who also in his spare time races cars on the NASCAR series and elsewhere in Florida. Again in his spare time as a medical student. How does he do it? That’s what I asked him, and he will dive into that right now.
Patrick, welcome to The Premed Years, thanks for joining me.
Meeting NASCAR Driver Patrick Staropoli
Patrick Staropoli: Thanks very much for having me on today.
Dr. Ryan Gray: So a question I never thought I would ask here on this podcast, when did you know you wanted to be a NASCAR driver?
Patrick Staropoli: Yeah definitely probably the first time you asked that question on here. But I got interested in racing ever since I was a little kid. I grew up going to the race track, my father and my grandfather raced, so I think I was six months old the first time I ever went to a race. Don’t quite remember that, but had my hearing protection in. But just grew up every Saturday night there, I got started in go karts when I was thirteen years old, and I’ve pretty much worked my way up from that point ever since for the last thirteen years or so.
Dr. Ryan Gray: So go karts at thirteen? That’s pretty old to get into racing.
Patrick Staropoli: That is old, it’s definitely on the older side. I mean there’s guys starting nowadays- guys and girls when they’re five or six years old in like quarter midgets, or go karts, or legends cars, and so I was definitely on the older side of the curve and I’ve had to play a little bit of catch-up during my racing career, but fortunately I’ve been able to continue to progressing upwards.
Dr. Ryan Gray: So as a racecar driver, many would assume that that’s what you would do, and you would go on and lead an awesome life being this star driving around in circles. But for some reason you’re a medical student. Where did this journey of wanting to be a doctor come from?
Medicine Entering the Picture
Patrick Staropoli: Yeah so that’s also a question I get a lot, and actually you know when I first started racing, the deal that I kind of made with my parents, or that they made with me, is that I had to get straight A’s in school if I wanted to race. And at that time I think I was just starting like third or fourth grade when they were telling me that, and all I wanted to do in the world was race all the time 100%. So that was a really big motivating factor for me to do well in school. And so of course I studied hard, I worked hard, and I started getting good grades, and at that point I think I started realizing, ‘Wow I kind of like learning. I like science, I like math,’ and school became the primary focus. Racing was always something that I could do for fun, but school is what I knew would secure a good future for myself. So I went through elementary, middle, high school, got the A’s and was able to continue to race, and that opened the door for me to do some really cool things. No one in my family before had ever gone to college, and I was the first one to get to do that, and I was really fortunate to get to go to Harvard for undergrad, and now University of Miami for med school, and I think it was really during college when I zeroed in on medicine as being what I wanted to spend my life doing as a profession. I was involved in this club called Unite for Sight, basically went around like Boston and Cambridge and gave free vision screenings to a lot of the underserved communities there, and that was really the first time I was able to participate in like any kind of healthcare interaction, because no one in my family had ever been in medicine before either. So I think all those experiences really opened my eyes in how cool the field of medicine is, and that’s what sold me on it, and I know that going far into the future that that’s something that I would see myself doing on a daily basis. So the racing is always a passion, it’s what I can do for fun, and the medicine is kind of what took over at that point.
Dr. Ryan Gray: So it’s interesting. I talk a lot about having a plan B, or actually the opposite of not having a plan B; if you’re dedicated and want to be a physician, don’t have a plan B and make that your goal. And so for you, it’s like racing was your plan A, and your plan B was medicine, which for most people it’s like, ‘Really? Like how do you have time for that? That’s crazy.’ I’m interested to know, so a lot of- or not a lot, but I know at least one NASCAR driver whose education is more in engineering because that supports the sport of NASCAR in better understanding how the car works, and being able to talk to the rest of the crew, and tweaking the car. What was it about not being a racecar driver, and looking into medicine, did you realize that, ‘You know what? I want something besides something that’s going to support my NASCAR career.’ Because as an engineer you could go and have a great life as a back-up once racing is done. What was it? Because you even just said that your healthcare exposure didn’t really start until college anyway. So what really motivated you to look outside of other things that could support a continued career in and around racing?
Patrick Staropoli: Yeah it’s funny you mention that driver, so I mean that’s Ryan Newman, and he’s a vehicle and structural engineer, and actually a lot of the younger drivers coming up nowadays try to major in mechanical engineering, or a lot of them are getting into marketing because the business side of the sport has become so important, it’s more important for a driver to have a strong marketing background than engineering nowadays. In my case, I actually entered college thinking that I wanted to do engineering, and I started off taking all the pre-requisite classes that you needed to do the advanced engineering classes, and it just so happened that all those same pre-requisites happened to overlap with the premed requisites- like required classes. And since they were kind of geared in the premed direction, a lot of the applications were more towards healthcare, and how it could benefit somebody’s health rather than the application to a car or something like that. And I just remember at the time being really interested in how you can use the same basic science that I was learning and you could apply it to a car, you could apply it to a person, and to make them healthier. And I think on the outside, even though medicine and racing look like two very different fields, and topic wise they very much are; the way that I approach problems with my racecar and the way that I approach diagnosing a patient, I’ve realized over time is actually really similar. And I think having experience in both areas has made me better in both. So you know, with a person you’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with them, you come up with a differential diagnosis, and then you try to figure out what’s going to be able to treat them the best with the least amount of side effects. And with a racecar you’re actually still trying to diagnose what your handling problem is, and you’re trying to break down the corner and figure out- you’re basically trying to localize the symptom. What part of the corner you’re having the worst handling problem in, and then what can you do to adjust the suspension, or to treat that, that will have the least amount of side effects for the rest of the corner. And so I don’t know if that’s just the way my brain’s wired, or how it all works, but I really feel like the two have played off of each other a lot, and I think outside of that is really just my interest in doing something for a living that’s intellectually challenging and I can help people, and I felt like my calling there was more in the medicine and healthcare direction than engineering, although a lot of the same skills can transfer back and forth.
Dr. Ryan Gray: You know it’s funny, cars and patients are a lot alike too. You have a car that has an engine noise, and you have a patient who has an upset stomach, or muscle aches-
Patrick Staropoli: Heartburn, yeah.
Dr. Ryan Gray: And you schedule that appointment to go to the doctor, and of course the day you go to the doctor or the day you go to the mechanic, the car’s not making the noise, and the patient is no longer hurting. So there’s a lot of tie-in. It’s funny that you talked about that whole differential diagnosis process. I’m a computer programmer at heart, I don’t know if I’ve ever really talked about that on the show before, but I think I spent more time in medical school writing computer code than studying for medical school. And it’s a very similar thought process of, ‘Okay here’s the problem, here’s what I’m trying to solve, and here are the many different ways I can get to that solution.’ So it’s the same process in many different arenas, it just depends on the medium, right? So the medium for racecar driving is springs, and shocks, and engines, and whatever. And for people it’s bones, and joints, and muscles. So it’s awesome.
Patrick Staropoli: Exactly.
Dr. Ryan Gray: So I’m still intrigued on this healthcare side. Was there any exposure for you from family members or yourself where you had exposure to a physician, or a family member had an illness and were exposed to healthcare in some respect where you were like- you saw the impact that healthcare could have on people?
Patrick Staropoli: Yeah so I guess there’s one other way that the racing and medicine have kind of come together in my life, and that was actually when I was much younger, this was back in 2001 when my dad was still racing. He had a really bad accident, it was actually down here in Miami at Hialeah Speedway and the throttle hung wide open on his car, and he hit the wall at full speed, and it was a really, really bad deal. And they airlifted him out of the racetrack and actually brought him to Jackson Memorial Hospital and Ryder Trauma Center which is where I’m currently training as a medical student, so a little bit of a twist of irony there. But through that whole process he was in really bad shape when they got there, and they essentially saved his life, and I was eleven or twelve at the time, so this was actually just before I got started racing, which my mom wasn’t too thrilled about. But we drove from Fort Lauderdale to Miami every day, which is about an hour long car ride every day for two or three months, and watched him slowly progressively get better, have numerous surgeries, have doctors from all different specialties and teams coming in to see him. And it wasn’t like I went through that experience and at the time said, ‘Oh man this is it, I need to be a doctor, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.’ But I think anytime something significant like that happens that early in your life, it definitely shapes and molds you in some way and stays in the back of your head as you move forward. So when I got really serious about it in college, when I was learning about it in class, when I was applying it with the Unite for Sight stuff, and I think still somewhere in the back of my mind was the experiences I had with my family and with my dad and watching him recover. All of that definitely played a role in shaping the direction that I went.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Alright there’s the planting of the seed.
Patrick Staropoli: There you go, you found it. It took three questions, but you found it.
Dr. Ryan Gray: That’s alright, I knew I was going to get there eventually.
Patrick Staropoli: Yeah.
Dr. Ryan Gray: So you went to Harvard- so you grew up it sounds like in south Florida?
Patrick Staropoli: Yeah, Fort Lauderdale.
Dr. Ryan Gray: What brought you to Harvard for undergrad?
Florida to Boston for Undergrad
Patrick Staropoli: Well a lot of it was Harvard, I think that attracts a lot of people there. You know I was fortunate, I had a few options to choose from when it came to college, and one of the great things about Harvard obviously is they have a lot of financial support that they’re able to give to students who want to go there, and that was in my case something that was really important, was being able to get scholarship to afford going to college. I was looking for a way to branch out, and do something different. I grew up in Fort Lauderdale my entire life from when I was born until eighteen years old, my parents never went to college, and I thought that that would be the best way to not only learn in a classroom setting, but also learn on a social level, and I feel like I got that return from my education there. I had roommates- I had four roommates from four different countries, and I lived with them the entire time that I was there, and I learned just as much from living with those guys I feel like as I did working in the classroom. So it was a really cool experience, it was really cool. I love Boston as a city, I just wish that they could pick it up and move it somewhere further south for me, but that’s just the Florida in me talking. But overall it was a great experience and I loved going there.
Dr. Ryan Gray: That’s why I no longer live in Boston as well, it’s way too cold and windy.
Patrick Staropoli: Yeah way too cold.
Dr. Ryan Gray: So you started driving go karts when you were thirteen. Did you continue racing during college?
Continuing Racing Career through College
Patrick Staropoli: Yeah I’ve pretty much raced all the way through since then. It’s gotten obviously progressively more difficult with the more time consuming school has become. During college it was mostly over winter break, and summer break, and we actually got a fair chunk of time off for both of those. So I’d come home to Florida, I remember my senior spring, you know we had one week for Spring Break and everybody went to like Mexico, or they went to Europe for a week or something, and I flew home, I worked on my racecar all week, we went racing Saturday night and I won the race right before the end of college. So that’s kind of always been the balance in my life; work really hard in school, go home, work on the racecar, go race, and that’s continued even through med school. Obviously like within the last year or so we’ve probably only raced three or four times because the schedule has gotten a lot trickier, but anytime I have an opportunity where it’s not going to affect my learning, or affect what I’m doing with my duties in the hospital, I’m trying to be in a racecar.
Dr. Ryan Gray: How do you do that? I would assume that even though you’re a medical student, and your career or your passion right now is medicine and learning it, deep down inside you’re a racecar driver. So how do you balance that desire to want to go race with the need for studying and that constant kind of nail in the back of your head going, ‘You need to read, you need to read, you have the boards coming up, you have to match, you have to do well.’
Patrick Staropoli: Yeah it’s really prioritizing and everyone says like the same thing, it’s time management, and knowing what you have to get done, and in what particular order. And it’s funny you bring up the board exams, that’s a huge chunk of your life that you dedicate to studying for those tests, and Step 1 and Step 2 are so important now as far as being competitive for the match, and trying to end up where you want to go. So when it came time to study for those tests, I cleared everything off the table. There’s no racing for these next two, three, or four months, you focus 100% on school, get through the board exam. You know you have a week off after that so as soon as the test is over I can start working on the car the next Monday, and I’ll have it ready for the next race. And it’s really- that’s kind of how I plan out my schedule. Luckily right now I’m starting to come to the end of fourth year, I have a little bit more elective time, so I know I’ll have weekends off like when you’re on the wards and you’re working six or seven days a week. So I’ve kind of planned out the races in advance and really cut out the time to work on my car. Or if we’re going to race in some NASCAR races, I try to work with the sponsors to figure out what race is on their schedule will match up with my school schedule, and so that the timing really works out so I have the flexibility to fly up to North Carolina or fly to whatever race it is.
Making Time Management a Priority
Dr. Ryan Gray: Have there been any systems that you’ve used, or tips or tricks from different websites, or processes that you’ve used for time management?
Patrick Staropoli: I wish I could say I had a specific regimen for doing it, but really I just keep a nice Google calendar and manage everything that way. I know there’s lots of really cool apps, and my friends have shown me a few of them before, but I haven’t really used any of them.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Okay. We’ve talked on this podcast a lot before, being a somewhat nontraditional applicant for medical school, it sounds like you went straight from high school to college to medical school, is that correct?
Patrick Staropoli: Yes, that’s correct.
Dr. Ryan Gray: So you’re traditional as far as path wise but you’re nontraditional as far as your experiences. How much do you think did your racing experience play into your ability to apply to and get into a good school like Miami?
Outside Passions Playing a Role in Medical School Applications
Patrick Staropoli: That’s a great question, and after thinking a lot about it and having gone through the whole residency match process just now, I can tell you it really goes both ways. Having something unique whether it’s racing, or if you’re an artist, or if you dance, like whatever your unique thing is, it helps you stand out and be unique through that entire process, but it also raises a lot of questions, and I feel like having spent the last three or four months interviewing for residency, the first question that came up was, ‘Wow tell me about your racing,’ and then the second one is, ‘Okay well it sounds like you’re really passionate about this. Why do you want to be an ophthalmologist? Why do you want to be a doctor?’ And so you really have to be prepared for both sides of the coin. I think it really helps you get your foot in the door, but then you also have to defend it and show that what you’re really passionate about, and what you do see yourself doing every day, and where your heart really is, is in medicine. And that’s sometimes a tricky thing because I feel like anybody can be passionate about more than one thing, you don’t necessarily have to limit yourself to one thing in life, and if you do, you might be missing out on the other thing that you really enjoy. And I’d say that that’s probably kind of carried weight through medical school applications and now also in residency, is having to kind of go on both sides of it.
Dr. Ryan Gray: There have been in the news lately several other athletes, and I’m sure I’ll get some flak for calling a NASCAR driver an athlete, but that’s okay.
Patrick Staropoli: No you won’t.
Professional Athletes Entering Medical School
Dr. Ryan Gray: There’s a Kansas City Chief football player who’s a medical student up in Canada, you have- I forget his first name, Rolle who used to play for the Tennessee Titans who went to Florida State University, my big rival as a University of Florida grad. He stopped playing football to go to medical school and now he’s a resident I believe. You have these people that are doing the same thing that you’re doing and balancing these two passions. Obviously with Rolle leaving football, but this other medical student that’s still playing football. Why not- kind of going back to that question that these residency program directors are asking you of, ‘Why do you want to be a doctor?’ Why not make the most of your racing career now, and then go back and do a residency later?
Patrick Staropoli: Yeah that’s a good question and I think a lot of it really depends on the sport that you’re doing. So obviously I’m not as familiar with the way football works, or basketball, things like that, but racing is tough to break into and to stay there. I think really the way I got my opportunities to race in NASCAR, because up until two or three years ago I was just racing on a local level in Florida, I actually won like a reality TV- it was like a driver search competition that PEAK Motor Oil had and the grand prize was one race in NASCAR. And so I actually won the contest. 700 people applied, they picked nine people, it was like a three day televised contest. I won that and then got to compete in the one NASCAR race, and I finished fifth, and that one race led to five more races, and I ended up winning one of those, and finishing in the top ten in all the other ones. And you think that that would be enough to plant the seed to have a career take off from, but with racing and motor sports in general nowadays it’s become so hard. If you don’t have a sponsor that will continually back you for full seasons or at least the majority of the season, a lot of the bigger teams in for example- well now it’s called the Monster Energy Cup Series, aren’t going to pick you up. So I feel like from my perspective, I’ve done everything that I could to blow up I guess the racing career as much as possible at this point. I’ve been able to compete at tracks that I’ve always wanted to race at since I was a kid, I’ve taken every opportunity that’s come my way as far as if there’s a race on the table, I’ve been able to go and pursue that. So yeah, I’ve given that part 100%. I don’t feel like I’ve left anything on the table there, and I’ve still been able to keep up the medical school career at the same time. So in those other guys’ cases, if they have full time football deals, or NBA deals or something on the table, I think that’d be a really unique or interesting question to ask them. But as far as my situation, every race I’ve been able to compete in, I’ve fortunately been able to find a way to do that. So right now is still going full throttle on both.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Nice. I like the pun there.
Patrick Staropoli: There you go, yeah.
Dr. Ryan Gray: What do you think with your background and maintaining obviously great grades and being a great student but also continuing this passion for racing, how do you think that’s going to make you a better physician in the future?
Patrick Staropoli: I think that as a doctor you’re just going to be busy. It doesn’t matter what specialty you’re in, or how nice they say the hours are with a certain specialty, or things like that, you’re always going to push yourself, and try to see as many patients as possible. And there’s a much bigger conversation there than I really know the details to have a debate about, but they say there’s decreased reimbursements, and so as a result doctors are having to see more patients per hour, and that’s been a trend that’s been happening for a long time. And so I think that being this busy at this point in my life, balancing school and the racing, and travelling places, and getting to do cool things like this where I hop on a podcast with you and get to discuss all of it; as a physician you’re going to be balancing all of that. Seeing patients, doing research, presenting at conferences, so I think that being as busy as I am right now is just going to help prepare me for that in the future.
Hardest Part of Medical School
Dr. Ryan Gray: What was the hardest part about being a medical student so far?
Patrick Staropoli: I think the hardest- I mean the hardest for me was the board exams. Just having the mentality to sit down and study for ten or twelve hours a day is- and doing that for several weeks in a row was something that I had never had to push myself that far beyond to do before. You know you have finals in college and things like that, and you spend a week studying for it and you’re like, ‘Wow that was a huge chunk of my life I just gave up for that test,’ and then you sit down to take one of these board exams and you realize you just spent the last month and a half of your life studying. That’s a lot of pressure. I can go 200 at Daytona and not sweat it, but you spend a month and a half of your life cramming for a test and you have six or seven hours to make it happen, that’s actually pretty daunting. So I’d say that was the toughest part. Third year of course is rough as far as hours and always working in the hospital and being on the wards, but there’s a lot more social interaction with that versus locking yourself in a room and studying. So I didn’t mind third year as much.
Anxiety on the Track versus Anxiety in Medicine
Dr. Ryan Gray: You mentioned going 200 at Daytona, going on those thirty degree banked turns. What is more anxiety provoking for you; being in the operating room or going 200 miles an hour in a car on a race track?
Patrick Staropoli: At this point in time I’d definitely say being in the operating room, and that’s mostly because at this point in my training you don’t really know what you’re doing. You’re trying to absorb and learn as much as you can every single second versus the racing. I’ve been doing that for over thirteen years now, and even though I’ve only raced at Daytona one time, and that was obviously the first time I had been there, it was exciting but it wasn’t so much scary. You’ve had enough seat time behind the wheel, even though you’re going faster, at those speeds everything seems relative unless you bump into somebody or you hit something. But you know, you feel like you’ve had enough experience to be confident in that case, and I think that that’s one of the biggest challenges of medical school is you’re relatively inexperienced compared to everybody you’re around and you’re learning from at every stage. And so that’s really daunting until you can get that knowledge and that experience under your belt.
Dr. Ryan Gray: You recently matched into ophthalmology, congratulations for that.
Patrick Staropoli: Thank you very much.
Dr. Ryan Gray: What do you see as your future as an ophthalmologist?
Patrick’s Future as an Ophthalmologist
Patrick Staropoli: So at this point I really like- I’ve had some great mentors throughout the last four years. I’ve worked with Dr. Lam and Dr. Gregori who are both at Bascom, one’s neuro optho, the other one’s mostly retina. And they’ve really shown me that you can have an awesome work life balance and be very involved in multiple areas. So I mean they’re busy clinically, they do a lot of research, they teach the med students, obviously they mentor them. So at this point I really see myself kind of going into one of those roles in the future and being a part of academics. I think that having that variety of tasks to do every day, nothing is going to get repetitive or be monotonous. You’re always researching a new question that interests you, you always have a new student that you’re trying to teach and bring along whether it’s a student or a resident. So I hope to kind of have that role. But beyond that, and I know this is starting to sound really busy, but the last couple years that I’ve been racing has been part of the AutoNation Drive Pink Campaign, they’ve been my sponsor, and so the campaign is really to raise breast cancer awareness. We run a special pink paint scheme, it promotes the AutoNation Cure Bowl that happens at the end of every year in Orlando which is a college football game. All the money from that football game, all the proceeds gets donated to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and over the last two years the campaign in total has raised somewhere- I think it’s been about $2.2 million to $2.3 million which is huge. And I only play a small role in that, I drive the car and I’m the spokesperson, but it’s been awesome to be part of something that big, and I feel like racing gives you the platform and the outreach to get to a lot of people, and to deliver important messages like that. So even though this campaign is about breast cancer which is also something that’s near to my family and to me personally, in the future I would like to try to find ways to use the racing to promote things that are important in ophthalmology. And I think that preventable blindness is a huge issue not just in this country but worldwide, and we’re coming up with lots of really- much more cost effective ways of screening for vision problems and getting people hooked up with the care that they need to prevent them from going blind later in life. And it’d be cool to really find a way to continue connecting both of those passions down the road.
Using Sports Platforms to Spread the Word
Dr. Ryan Gray: That’s huge. Actually how you’re describing that, it reminds me a lot of what Tim Tebow is doing and using the platform of being a professional football player, now trying to be a professional baseball player, he doesn’t really consider himself a baseball player or a football player, he considers himself kind of a messenger and he just is using those platforms to get his message out.
Patrick Staropoli: Yeah exactly. I mean on the periphery I’ve followed what he’s done over the years, and I think it is great when you can use whatever sport you’re doing or whatever profession you’re in really to promote something that’s really important to you, and I’ve gotten a little bit of experience doing that the last several years and I’d like to see how that can evolve going into the future.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Well let’s see you spread the message now, and talk to the student who’s listening to this and struggling to find that balance that you were able to find with being a student, and being a driver, and how do you help them as they’re trying to figure this out? And explain to them that they need to push through it and figure out ways to make it work because it’s worth it.
Finding Balance and Making Sacrifices
Patrick Staropoli: Yeah it’s tricky, and I feel like it’s a never-ending process, and even right now I can’t tell you that I’ve had the most consistent sleep schedule the last few weeks. I matched, fourth year is about over, and I’m still trying to knock out projects, and get the racecar ready for some races we have coming up, and you’re never going to find that perfect balance. And it really comes down to you have to make sacrifices, and you need to know what you’re willing to give up in a certain area to be able to achieve something more in a different area. And everybody has their own balance that they’re comfortable with. I’m not going to go on this weekend getaway with my friends because I’ve got to knock this one thing out, or I’m going to go do this so that I can have fun doing the other activity coming down the road. And it is difficult and being almost on the other side of med school now, I can say it’s worth it if you stay true to yourself and do what you want to do with your time, that when you look back on it you’re not going to regret anything. So I’ve been incredibly busy the last four years, and the racing has only made it even busier, made school even more difficult having to balance everything. But if I went back and had to do it again I wouldn’t change any single decision that I made because at the time I weighed it out, I was like, ‘This is worth it,’ and I put the time in, and I did it. So for anybody out there listening, that’s the best advice I can give you.
Dr. Ryan Gray: Alright there you have it, Patrick Staropoli; NASCAR driver, medical student, soon-to-be ophthalmology resident. It’s pretty crazy when you think back to your- as you’re in this, your undergrad years, or if you’re a medical student or whoever is listening to this right now, and the commitment that it takes to follow your dreams of becoming a physician, and then kind of on the side of being a great racecar driver as well. I thought it was an interesting person to interview because of those time management skills, and the organizational skills that are needed. And obviously Patrick didn’t have the ultimate answer for you, and I don’t think there is an ultimate answer because what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for the other. But I think the moral of this story is that if you have passions outside of medicine, I highly encourage you do have passions and you continue to cultivate those passions outside of medicine as you’re going through the premed process, the medical school process, through residency even, you need to maintain a life outside of medicine for your sanity. So again I think that’s another good message to send here.
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I hope you enjoyed this episode. Next week is going to be a great episode with somebody who works on Capitol Hill doing a lot of policy who recently got accepted into medical school, and sharing her journey on what she learned and what she struggled with along the way. Have a great week, we’ll see you next time here at the Medical School Headquarters and The Premed Years Podcast.
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