Green Beret to MD/MBA: Shea’s Journey

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PMY 570: Green Beret to MD/MBA: Shea's Journey

Session 570

Initially struggling in undergrad to pursuing a career as a physician after serving as a Special Forces Medical Sergeant in the military, Shay focused on overcoming obstacles and failures to gain admission to medical school.

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Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

Interest in Becoming a Physician

Shay did not realize he wanted to be a physician until he was already serving in the military. As a Special Forces Medical Sergeant, he received extensive medical training.

While on rotations in Tampa, Florida and Morgantown, West Virginia, Shay had the opportunity to work directly with doctors in emergency room settings. He was impressed by the physicians’ high levels of skill, knowledge, and confidence in stressful situations. Shay also appreciated how the doctors planned for contingencies and were prepared to handle anything that could potentially go wrong.
Witnessing the fast-paced, dynamic work of physicians in acute medical environments really resonated with Shay. It was during these rotations that he became interested in medicine and started envisioning a long-term career as a doctor after completing his military service.

An Uncertain Path at BYU

When Shay attended BYU for his first year after high school, he did not have a clear plan or direction for his future. He had not declared a major and was not focused on his studies.

Shay mentioned that no one else in his family had a bachelor’s degree, so he did not receive guidance on career planning or selecting a course of study. He essentially went to BYU because that was the expected next step after high school graduation, rather than having well-defined academic or career goals.

Due to this lack of focus and direction, Shay failed most of his classes that year outside of racquetball and calculus, with an overall low GPA of around 0.6.

Shay’s Path to Becoming a Special Forces Medical Sergeant

Rather than having his military role assigned to him, Shay intentionally pursued becoming a Special Forces medical sergeant. He researched the different special operations forces across branches and decided he wanted to join the Special Forces. Within their team structure, roles like medic, engineer and communicator are required.

Considering his interests in physical activity and physiology, Shay felt the medical sergeant role was the best fit. He scored well enough on the ASVAB to qualify for medical training. He then underwent the Army’s combat medic course to gain certification before starting Special Forces selection. His goal from the beginning was to work as a Special Forces Medical Sergeant, so he deliberately chose and prepared for that specialized career path.

Factors that Empowered Shay’s Pursuit of Medicine

There were a few key reasons why Shay gave himself permission to explore a medical career despite his early academic struggles.
First, he had developed immense confidence and resilience through his military training. The army had rebuilt him to believe in his abilities to overcome failures through dedication and hard work. Shay was motivated by a clear long-term goal of becoming a physician. Having a defined end goal helped drive his discipline and focus, even through difficult periods of study.

Experiences like working as a Special Forces medic and observing physicians up close convinced Shay of his passion for medicine. This gave him confidence his academic struggles were situational rather than indicative of his capabilities.

“You’re going to have times where things are difficult. You’re going to have times where patient interactions go poorly… The military had taught me to have confidence in spite of that failure.”

Shay decided on pursuing an MD specifically because he wanted the greatest depth of training to feel fully capable in any medical situation. He believed an MD would provide the most physiology knowledge, clinical experience and autonomy through a residency that he desired to best serve patients, especially in high-pressure environments like the operating room.

The Confidence-Building Impact of Military Training

Shay directly attributes much of his confidence and resilience to his military training experiences. He says the army rebuilt him after his initial struggles at BYU by teaching him to have faith in his abilities even in the face of failure.

Through grueling courses that broke recruits down physically and mentally, the military instilled in Shay a belief that with dedication, he could overcome any challenges and accomplish his goals. This empowered him with a “can-do” attitude that no obstacle would ultimately stop him from pursuing his dreams of medical school and becoming a physician.

Factors that Led Shay to Pursue a Career as a Physician

Experience in Medical Environments

Shay’s experiences working in ERs and ORs as a Special Forces medic exposed him to the depth of responsibility and autonomy that physicians had. He was drawn to their high level of medical knowledge and skill in managing acute patient care.
Specialties like anesthesiology that involved procedures, planning for contingencies, and managing high-pressure situations aligned perfectly with Shay’s interests and experience from his military service.

Desire for Comprehensive Training and Leadership Roles

Shay wanted the most extensive medical education possible so that he could feel fully capable independently handling any medical situation. He believed the MD route could provide that through in-depth physiology training and clinical experience in residency.

“I want to be able to contribute as much as possible to a team and be as trained and capable as possible, in the event that somebody’s life is in my hands.”

The leadership roles of physicians also appealed to Shay given his military background. He wanted to contribute maximally to patient care teams through refined medical expertise.

Drawn to High-Stress Environments

Shay reflects that his thrill-seeking personality may come from both innate traits as well as environmental influences. He notes that from a young age, he enjoyed high-adrenaline activities like martial arts, wrestling, and other physical sports. This excitement for pushing his limits was potentially reinforced by his experiences in the military, such as being airborne-qualified and attending halo skydiving school.

However, Shay also acknowledges that it could be a natural part of who he is that draws him to environments with chaos, stress and the need to quickly establish order – similar to how he thrived as a Special Forces medic. Overall, he seems to believe his risk-taking temperament developed from both nature and nurture factors throughout his upbringing and training.

Shay’s Decision to Leave the Military

Shay wrestled with whether to complete his military career or leave to pursue medical school more immediately. His first team sergeant played a key role in advising him. The sergeant, who had also been a Special Forces medic, warned Shay that balancing medical training with the tempo and demands of Special Forces would be extremely difficult without fully dedicating himself. He told Shay from his experience, those who said they wanted to do both never actually achieved it.

“If you’re not 100% set up to do this, you’re never going to have time to do that.”

Considering the years of schooling ahead and need for singular focus, the sergeant recommended Shay get out of the military if he truly wanted to become a physician. This frank counsel convinced Shay that leaving the stability of the military was necessary to maximize his chances of medical school admission. He took the leap to prioritize his medical dreams over staying in for the pension.

Understanding the Medical School Admissions Process

To gain clarity on the medical school application process, Shay actively sought out informational resources. Since his family lacked experience in higher education, he recognized he needed to fill knowledge gaps on his own.

Shay enrolled at the University of Utah where his wife worked, allowing him access to on-campus advising. He met with advisors, attended orientation programs, and researched medical school prerequisites and admissions criteria. This helped him understand concrete steps for academic preparation.

Shay also discovered this podcast, which provided valuable guidance on crafting a compelling narrative and overcoming past struggles. By proactively learning the application process, Shay felt empowered to create a study plan and regain confidence in his academic abilities with a clear roadmap for success.

A Discouraging Early Meeting with a Premed Advisor

When Shay first met with a premed advisor at the University of Utah, the conversation did not go very well. The advisor took a discouraging tone after looking at Shay’s transcripts from BYU, which showed his past academic struggles with a low GPA.

She told him point blank that with grades in “the toilet,” he should seriously consider pursuing a different career path in healthcare rather than medicine. The advisor suggested alternative options like nursing or PA school.

Shay was disappointed by this lack of encouragement. However, he recognized this one negative interaction was not the final word. He chose not to meet with that advisor again and instead sought out more supportive resources to help guide his medical dreams.

Navigating the Interview Trail

Shay’s early academic struggles from his first year at BYU over a decade prior did not seem to be a major focus during his medical school interviews.

By that point, his transcripts showed years of strong upward academic performance at the University of Utah with grades that were competitive for admission.

Interviewers were more interested in learning about Shay’s unique military background and personal qualities to assess his fit. As his past struggles were so far in the past, medical schools appeared satisfied that he no longer posed an academic risk concern.

Shay believes focusing on telling his story and journey of overcoming adversity helped overshadow those earlier grades from his more formative years as a student.

Assessing Academic Risk Over Isolated Grade Performance

While medical schools do consider an applicant’s grades, their primary concern is assessing an individual’s academic risk or likelihood of succeeding in medical school. Shay’s early struggles from over a decade prior naturally posed a high risk that would have concerned admissions committees.

By the time of his interviews, Shay had established a strong record of sustained achievement at Utah, demonstrating he had overcome the issues that previously hindered his performance.

Shay applied to approximately 35 medical schools. He was granted interviews by around a dozen of those 35 schools.

“Medical schools care about grades, but it’s not just a number they’re looking for. They’re looking for risk. What is your academic risk of your risk of not finishing medical school?”

Medical schools saw this multi-year upward trend as evidence that the academic challenges from his freshman year were situational rather than indicative of his abilities. With years of solid grades reducing his risk level, the schools were reassured those earlier struggles no longer foreshadowed potential difficulties in medical training.

Pursuing MBA During Medical School

Shay became interested in pursuing an MBA during his clinical rotations year of medical school. He was inspired seeing how much his wife grew professionally and in leadership abilities through completing her own MBA.

When Shay learned from an upperclassman that some schools offered a dual MD/MBA program allowing a leave of absence, he realized it was an opportunity to gain similar skills.

The executive management training aligned with Shay’s goals of contributing maximally to patient care teams through refined expertise and experience leading others. This discovery motivated Shay to explore the option of integrating an MBA into his physician training, which he felt would allow him to one day take on leadership roles within healthcare organizations.

Shay’s Continued Focus on a Career in Anesthesiology

Shay remains firmly committed to pursuing a career in anesthesiology. He plans to complete anesthesiology rotations during his fourth year of medical school to gain further experience in the specialty.

Shay’s goals are either to pursue additional training in cardiothoracic anesthesia through a fellowship or to specialize in pain management. He also believes the leadership skills developed through his MBA will serve him well for any team-based roles.

Overall, Shay is driven to utilize his extensive medical expertise and training to care for patients as an anesthesiologist and potentially take on leadership positions within healthcare organizations down the road.

Worth the Decade-Long Journey

When reflecting on the decade-long journey from his early struggles through medical school so far, Shay believes it has been worth it despite the long road still ahead. While he has yet to fully realize the fruits of his labor as a physician, Shay finds value in the personal growth, resilience and satisfaction built along the way. He believes the worth is defined not just by the destination but by embracing each challenge and transformation.

“The worth is determined by your attitude regarding the journey itself.”

Shay’s military training instilled the attitude to take pride in pushing boundaries, even when difficult. With this mindset, Shay feels the journey itself has been rewarding and will continue motivating him toward his dreams of caring for others as a doctor.

Final Words of Wisdom

For those currently pursuing their medical dreams, Shay’s advice would be to find what truly motivates you and use that to drive discipline every day.

While intelligence is helpful, dedication is what will carry you through the challenges. Don’t be deterred by failures – the military taught Shay that confidence comes from overcoming adversity. Surround yourself with peers who are equally motivated towards success, as achieving goals is significantly more likely with a supportive network.

Most importantly, know your “why” – having a clear end goal will sustain you even when the journey is difficult. With focus and perseverance, anyone can achieve what initially seems impossible.


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