The New Physician
Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go….
Students gain extra cash,
and professional skills
Jennifer Knight knows how to give directions. She’s become an expert at recognizing someone with that dazed and confused look in their eyes. And while this comes in handy as she traverses the halls of West Virginia University (WVU) Hospital as a fourth-year medical student at WVU, it’s not a skill she learned on the wards. It’s something she picked up while working at a little-known place called Walt Disney World.
Knight has spent her medical school career moonlighting her way through school breaks as a guide at the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular™ show at the Florida theme park. By trading her stethoscope for Mouseketeer ears during both summer and winter breaks, Knight has earned close to $2,000 a year for medical school expenses.
But extracurricular jobs are not something every medical student would take on. In fact, most advise against it, citing heavy course loads, long library and lab hours and a desire to spend what little free time medical school provides on decompressing from the realities of the classroom. Many schools even set policies forbidding students from working outside of school.
But there’s no doubt that most medical students could use the extra cash an extracurricular job provides. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) estimates that with tuition, books, licensing exams and medical supplies, the average first-year medical student could spend $32,685 at an in-state school and nearly an additional $9,000 at an out-of-state school. And that’s just the first year. The AAMC calculates that the costs rise with each year of medical school. For many students, this adds up to more than $100,000 in school debt by the time they start residency.
So they go to the local mall and sell the latest fashions to teens out on Saturday night, head to the downtown diner and practice staying up for 24 hours by serving coffee during the graveyard shift, or spend more time in the lab as a research assistant or even a human subject. But these are the usual jobs students look for during medical school. Others, like Sepi Fatahi, are bigger risk-takers.
RACING TOWARD MED SCHOOL
Fatahi’s shady past as a driver in the illegal sport of street racing belies her current role as a junior premed major at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). And while she readily admits she once took up drag racing on deserted streets, she’s quick to tell you that she doesn’t do that anymore. A serious racing accident in which she was found to be at fault was enough to drive her to the professional drag racing track and off the streets. She’s put more than $20,000 into upgrading her 2001 Acura Integra for competition, fueling her desire to be known worldwide for her driving prowess. She says the thrill of the race is hard to give up.
“It’s just a totally different feeling when you’re on the track. It’s like a roller coaster ride, but you’re in control.”
But beyond feeding her thrill-seeking soul, Fatahi claims auto racing may also become her ticket to medical school. Yes, yes, we agree: It doesn’t make much sense that someone committed to becoming a healer spends her weekends hurtling her car—and herself—down a quarter-mile track at 90 miles per hour. The risks, Fatahi knows, are enormous. Her parents hate what she does—little wonder why—but she figures the pay is good for the winners, and medical school is expensive.
“My uncle said he’ll help me with med school, but I’m trying to be independent,” Fatahi says. The plan is to use the $150,000 purse that comes with a first-place finish at a world-class race to fund her medical school expenses. And while 19-year-old Fatahi knows becoming that good is a long shot, she remains optimistic. “If I can accomplish this, then there’s no reason why I can’t become a doctor,” she says.
But first she needs to get her car back from the shop. At press time, she was waiting on a $5,000 engine rebuild as the beginning of the drag racing season loomed. The fastest cars can do the quarter-mile in eight seconds; hers takes 11. “Every penny I’ve ever earned has gone into my car,” she says. To fund her habit until she starts winning some races, Fatahi also puts time in at a UCLA laboratory doing research into AIDS and cancer. But medical school is still two years away, and hey, somebody has to win the next race.
Dr. Ryan McCarthy’s extra cash for medical school came a little less daringly. But the internal medicine and pediatrics intern at WVU Hospital didn’t spend his summer before medical school just lying around, contemplating the next four years of his life, either. Instead, he sacrificed 10 precious weeks leading 20 teenagers through the wilderness of upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Between the teen angst and hungry wildlife, McCarthy was hiking on tenuous soil. The $2,500 McCarthy earned that summer provided for the apartment furniture on which he now sleeps, eats and studies.
While many physicians-in-training rely on loans to provide for even basic needs like furniture, the students who are able to work a little on the side say it’s nice to have extra cash on hand to pay for necessities that the financial aid office often overlooks.
Knight says the $400 she earns at Disney during winter break and the $1,500 she was able to earn when she had her summers free gives her cash for things like Christmas gifts and other purchases “at the end of the semester when money’s kind of tight.”
And Knight says she spends “way more money than what is budgeted for books…because you also need the review books.” She also purchased a cell phone, because once the school provided her with a pager, she found she needed a mobile phone to respond to the pages. “And then there are things like the appropriate accessories to go with whatever rotation you’re in,” she says, referring to needing scrub shoes for surgery rotations as an example. And let’s not forget about clothes. When Knight made the transition from second to third year, she found her wardrobe needed a little lift, since she couldn’t wear the jeans, T-shirts and flip-flops she pulled on for class on the wards. All those unexpected expenses add up.
Still, Knight knows she gets off easy compared to many other medical students. With her tuition only about $10,000 a year and everything else running about $12,000, she spends far less than someone trying to get by at a private school in a big city.
MORE THAN A PAYCHECK
The real benefit for many of these physicians-in-training may not be the money but the pleasure of focusing on something other than medicine and learning a new set of skills, many of which can be applied to their future careers. “[Working at Disney] helps me financially. It also helps me mentally,” Knight says. “It gives me a free vacation. I think that, in my mind, that’s the benefit.”
And how could working at Uncle Walt’s playground not be fun? In addition to getting to know Mickey and his friends—the characters, not the actors inside them, of course—she’s met *NSYNC, Michael Jackson, Marie Osmond, the princess of Saudi Arabia, a couple of professional football players and even Neil Patrick Harris, who’s not a doctor but played one on TV. The park alerts the staff when someone famous arrives, who’s usually there just to tour Disney World with his family. “We have to treat them like any other guest,” Knight says, adding that the customer-service philosophy Disney follows is similar to the patient-service emphasis in medicine. And some guests provide good practice for dealing with difficult patients.
McCarthy reaped many more benefits from his summer job than just some furniture. He says there’s no doubt that he’ll be a better physician because of the wilderness experience. He spent a lot of time that summer working to bring people together to accomplish a common goal, whether that was pitching a tent or canoeing down a river. “It’s very similar to what I have to do today,” he says. “We need to do X, Y and Z today with [limited] resources.”
He says he also realized that being in a leadership position is “a really huge responsibility. Now, anytime I have my white coat on, I know that if I swear or do something [in poor taste], it would reflect bad on [the entire field of] medicine.”
McCarthy’s summer adventure even led him to his medical specialty—the man who, until that summer, had never spent much time around children, is now training to be a pediatrician.
Knight’s summer job has also shaped her future. Having spent so much time in Orlando, she’s come to like the community enough to secure two of her fourth-year rotations at area hospitals. This October and November she’ll spend her school days on the wards and her weekends working at Disney. And she’s hoping to match into a general surgery residency program in the area.
SQUEEZING IT ALL IN
These future physicians agree that it takes a special kind of person to be able to move beyond the summer job and take on extracurricular work during the school year. Dr. Russ Jaffe, for example, financed half of his eight-year B.A.–M.D.–Ph.D. education at Boston University (BU) through odd jobs back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. A seemingly miraculous feat today, Jaffe graduated with no student loans at all, having financed the other half through scholarships. Now the director of ELISA/ ACT Biotechnologies L.L.C. in Sterling, Virginia, Jaffe taught undergraduate classes, worked in a research lab, sold books at the student bookstore and secured a paying position with the American Medical Student Association to help finance his education. Apparently that still wasn’t enough, because he also jumped into the real estate business.
For two years Jaffe worked as both a real estate agent and broker, managing real estate deals mostly for friends and family. In order to do this, he had to have a license, which required more studying and another test on top of his medical schoolwork. And when he wasn’t selling real estate, he was managing it. Needing a place to live near the university, Jaffe bought a run-down house a few blocks from the school. After renovations—which he did himself, of course—15 students moved in with him. To some of them, Jaffe was not only landlord but also teacher. “Some of them I taught biochemistry to, and they didn’t hesitate to ask questions,” he says. What did he learn from the experience? “Be clear, be nice and be firm,” he says.
With a jazz musician mother and a father who played basketball for the Boston Celtics, Jaffe says his drive to work during medical school came naturally from watching his parents balance their busy careers. After school, sleeping and personal needs, a medical student has about 10 percent of his day left for extracurricular work and play, he says. “Med school kept most people busy, and to do extra things you were either very foolish or had a very great need.” He likes to think it was the great need. Jaffe’s unsure if BU condoned his outside activities, but he and his fellow working medical students figured “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
This jack-of-all-trades is certainly the exception to the rule of nonworking students. But who knows where these part-time diversions might lead the students who take them on? Knight is working on a second career of sorts—even if it has been unwittingly thrust upon her. “I’ve become the school’s travel guide whenever someone goes on vacation,” she says. “I get calls from random physicians planning trips.” It seems everyone wants to meet the Mouse.
And who knows, Fatahi may someday win that big race. In the meantime, we hope there’s a good physician waiting nearby.
Jennifer Zeigler is a senior writer with The New Physician.