ICU Nurse Turned Medical Student Shares Her Journey

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Session 234

Our guest on today’s episode is Sarah, a former CTICU nurse who is currently a 3rd-year medical student aspiring to become a cardiothoracic surgeon! She shares with us her transition from being a nurse to being a medical student, and the challenges that came with that. If you’re a nurse thinking about making this same transition and worried about how your colleagues are going to react, take a listen to learn from Sarah’s experience.

[05:15] Her Interest in Being a Physician

Sarah’s initial interest in health care was mainly influenced by her dad, who is an engineer and would always call “Nurse Sarah” to treat the wounds he got from woodworking. Then the show ER came out, and seeing that inspired her even more to help people.

Not the best student in high school, Sarah wanted to help people and thought that being a nursing associate may be the quickest route. Also, being traditionally raised, Sarah thought that as a girl, nursing was her natural path into medicine.

Being traditionally raised, Sarah thought that as a girl, nursing was her natural path into medicine.Click To Tweet

[08:30] Taking Things One Step At a Time

Sarah’s path to nursing was not smooth or easy as she had to teach herself math, which she always struggled with in school. While in nursing school, she saw her first open-heart surgery, which she thought was so cool. Already a year into nursing school, she talked one day with her academic advisor and expressed her interest in going to medical school, but the advisor told her to take things one step at a time.

She Didn’t Know If She Could Become a Doctor

Sarah got a job as a nurse after graduation, then got married shortly after and established her personal life more. She wanted to work a bit to be able to save money and then go back to school to get her biology degree to work toward becoming a doctor. But she didn’t know if she could still be a doctor, and self-doubt kept her in nursing for about a year and a half before she finally started to move forward.

[Related episode: From Nursing to Accepted Premed, A Story of Lost Confidence]

Sarah thinks her self-doubt mainly came from her academic performance, being a nontraditional student and not having the highest scores in school. She had this picture in her head that in order for someone to be a doctor, you have to be a 4.0 student and have everything aligned, so she thought her background would not be appreciated. Her biggest hindrance was thinking they only want the best, so she wasn’t good enough.

She had this picture in her head that in order for someone to be a doctor, you have to be a 4.0 student and have everything aligned, so she thought her background would not be appreciated.Click To Tweet

[11:36] Working with Mentors and Getting Discouraged by Physicians

Sarah was lucky enough to find a good mentor in her nurse supervisor, who totally encouraged her and supported her in her desire to go to medical school. Sarah had actually found that many physicians she worked with discouraged people from going to medical school. That made her a little apprehensive, but her mentor really pushed her forward, instilled faith, and saw things in her that she didn’t see in herself.

Shortly after she spoke with her nurse supervisor about her interest in going to medical school, a new trauma surgeon started, and Sarah found out she was a former critical care nurse herself. So she met with her one-on-one, and the surgeon helped her draft her personal statement. Knowing this mentor who went from critical care nurse to surgeon, the path became more tangible for her.

[Related episode: How Will Being a Nurse Affect My Application to Medical School?]

[15:40] Why Not Nurse Practitioner?

Sarah’s mentor helped affirm her decision that she wanted to be a doctor, not a nurse practitioner. They could relate to each other, both wanting to be the ones to make the full decision and be the one who shaped of the plan of care for the patients.

She definitely hates the term “mid-level providers” most hospitals use, but she knew those were not the avenue for her. Having worked at a community hospital to academic centers throughout different states, Sarah saw how varied their roles were from hospital to hospital, practice to practice, state to state. In one place, the nurses couldn’t even interpret if an NG tube was placed properly on an x-ray. In short, the autonomy varied based on practice, hospital, and state, which was something Sarah did not like.

Another reason Sarah wanted to take the medical school path is that as a nurse, you take orders from doctors, and while you can question them, in the end, if you don’t agree with something it’s hard to stomach that.

Sarah says nurses have a bit of a sixth sense sitting at the bedside all day, which can’t be conveyed in any other way sometimes. Not having the authority to do what she knows the patient needs was not something she was looking for.

To be told, 'No, you can't do that. That's not within your scope of practice,' was not something that I was looking for.Click To Tweet

[18:10] Articulating Why You Want to be a Doctor During Interviews

At every single medical school interview, this question of why she didn’t just become an NP or PA always came up. Sarah recommends to nurses going into medicine that they need to prep for this question. You need to know why you didn’t, and it needs to be a good reason.

Sarah adds that there needs to be introspection and maturity in your decision, and you need to be able to articulate that clearly to those interviewing you. They want to know you’re doing it for the right reasons and that you’ve looked into other avenues.

At every single medical school interview, this question of why she didn't just become an NP or PA always came up.Click To Tweet

Focus on the Patients

Half of Sarah’s reason for going to medical school is an intense interest in learning the pathophysiology of things. That knowledge and passion to learn more about the why of things, although they have always been a big component for her, are not enough by themselves. She wants to use that knowledge to formulate more holistic plans for her patients and be able to provide plans of care she truly believes in. She wants autonomy to use her knowledge to help patients.

You can always study and learn more, no matter what your job is, but as a physician, you get to apply that knowledge directly into hands-on patient care with the most autonomy to help your patient. Having this in your heart when you’re explaining why you want to be a doctor, and emphasizing the ability to impact patients, is definitely the way to approach it.

[Related book: The Premed Playbook: Guide to the Medical School Interview]

[22:20] Dealing with Negativity and Working With Others

Sarah has quite a remarkable approach in how she deals with her negative interactions, saying there is always something to take away from it. It’s about taking negative energy and turning it into something positive, which is also what you should go for in life in general.

Sarah explains you’re always bound to come across conflict in your career, so you need to be able to convey that to the people interviewing you. They need to know you can work with people and that you’re willing to listen and work toward to a resolution together.

[24:06] Nursing While Taking Medical School Prereqs

About a year and a half into nursing, Sarah met with an academic advisor at a four-year institution and he laid the timeline for applying to medical school. Sarah proudly says this was the right first step.

It can be hard taking classes at a four-year university while working since they have traditional school hours and not everything is available online. Luckily Sarah’s nursing job had flexible hours. She worked every single weekend for at least 24 hours, and then she would sometimes pick up eight-hour shifts too.

As to why she didn’t go to a community college that may give a more flexible schedule, Sarah explains that an A from a top-10 school versus an A from a very small community college may mean different things. So she saw it as a way for her to prove to medical schools that she went to a good institution and did well there.

[27:22] Four-Year Universities versus Community College for Premed

As for the idea that medical schools look at four-year institutions and community colleges differently, Sarah obtained this information from meeting with different admissions advisors, as well as from doctors that served on admission committees. I agree with it to some extent.

A lot of students will look at two different four-year institutions and will look at one that they’re maybe not excited to go to, thinking it’s going to be a bigger hit on their medical school application or it’s going to be looked at more favorably. But truthfully, once you’re up to a four-year school, unless you’re talking Harvard versus some podunk university in Alabama, the name of your undergraduate school doesn’t matter much. And while I wouldn’t advise doing all your prereqs at a community college, even that won’t necessarily ruin your chances.

Once you're up to a four-year school, unless you're talking Harvard versus some podunk university in Alabama, the name of your undergraduate school doesn't matter a lot.Click To Tweet

[30:20] Starting Medical School and Leveraging Her Nursing Background

Sarah was used to handling stress as an ICU nurse also going to school, but she still found medical school stressful. She acknowledges the need for a good, strong support group around you. She says the analogy of drinking through a fire hose couldn’t be more perfect, and she didn’t fully understand it until she started medical school.

The analogy drinking through a fire hose couldn't be more perfect, and I didn't truly grasp what that meant until I started medical school.Click To Tweet

The hardest thing for her was not just the vast amount of information she had to take in but the anti-social effect of having to spend such long hours in the library.

Her nursing background helped her in medical school because she felt comfortable talking to patients and handling stress in general, considering the stressful job nurses have. She was also able to help mentor and tutor some of her classmates, especially in pharmacology.

Within a couple of weeks of starting medical school, they started seeing patients in clinics, and the attending surgeon commented that Sarah was light-years ahead of the other students, already acting like an attending as far as comfort level. She knew how to handle difficult situations—if a patient started yelling at her, for example—and she wasn’t freaked out.

Within a couple of weeks of starting medical school, they started seeing patients in clinics, and the attending surgeon commented that Sarah was light-years ahead of the other students, already acting like an attending as far as comfort level.Click To Tweet

Staying Humble as an Experienced Nurse in Medical School

There were times in medical school when Sarah wanted to handle certain portions of patient care which were not within her scope of practice as a medical student (but which she had done as a nurse in the past), and that was difficult for her.

She was aware that working with residents and attendings, she should not come off as overly confident and like a know-it-all. Sarah says you have to stay humble since they are the ones grading you and teaching you. At the same time, you have to learn how to speak up and recommend different things without coming off as abrasive.

[35:55] Getting Negative Feedback from Other Nurses

Sarah actually had to deal with getting a lot of negative feedback from other nurses. She had to insist that she is still a nurse and continues to advocate for nurses. She didn’t leave nursing because it’s not good enough, but just because it’s not the road for her.

Sarah explains this is something you will experience as a nurse who is working and trying to go to medical school, so you have to be careful who you tell this to and who you surround yourself with.

Nurses tend to speak highly of physicians who were nurses before. But apparently, the harder part is when you’re actually making the transition because they don’t understand why you’re making that change.

[37:37] The Application Process and Personal Statement

Sarah found the application process to take a lot longer than she anticipated. She took the MCAT twice because she wanted to make sure she performed at a level that didn’t limit her selection of schools.

Sarah advises that if you’re thinking of family planning or you’re dating somebody and you’re trying to give them realistic expectations for how long this process will take, always consider that it could take another year or two before you actually land in medical school.

Sarah iterates that you have to write your personal statement 10+ times over before you get it right, and you have to get eyes on it. The personal statement being a critical portion of the application, you have to get yourself across. You have to talk about what sets you apart, and Sarah believes being a nurse is very favorable, so you need to draw upon that in your application process.

[39:40] Choosing Which Medical Schools to Apply To

Sarah looked up medical schools in MSAR. She was looking for schools that favored diversity and those that looked at nontraditional students more. She didn’t want anything that felt toxic or places where she didn’t feel at ease interviewing there. Sarah can happily say that the school she is in now is the perfect fit.

Sarah recommends that if you’re in academics as a nurse and they have a medical school, use that opportunity to network. She actually met their Chief of Surgery who worked with her as a heart transplant surgeon and got into the whole process, and she was able to bring her concerns to the table. She adds that in order to get a feel for the school, you have to actually go there and reach out to the admissions advisor.

One of the big mistakes premed students make when looking at schools is comparing themselves to the stats listed in MSAR. Just remember those are averages, so half the students admitted are below that and half are above.Click To Tweet

[42:40] The Most Rewarding Part of Being a Medical Student

For Sarah, patient interactions are the most rewarding part of medical school. She recalls during a rotation at a surgery clinic she met an older couple. The surgeon introduced her as the future heart surgeon, and the elderly woman looked at her and said she was so proud of her, considering not too many women enter this field. This touched Sarah because it reminded her of the impact she’s having and how far she’s already come on this journey.

[44:42] Final Words of Wisdom

Sarah leaves us with inspiring advice to not ever doubt yourself. You’re going to be old one day anyway, so don’t worry about the time and sacrifice that this path requires. In the end, everything you do is going to mean so much more than any of those momentary stresses.

Sarah mentions a 60-year-old in her calculus class who told her that she’s going to be old one day, but she wants to be old doing what she loves and having no regrets.

Don’t let time or any of those other stressors get in between you and your goal. You can do it. It’s never impossible. Just put your blinders on and go forward.

You're going to be old one day anyway, so don't worry about the time and sacrifice that this path requires. In the end, everything you do is going to mean so much more than any of those momentary stresses.Click To Tweet