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Raising the Bar

A nontraditional student finds balance

The New Physician May-June 2007
Surrounded by screaming, red-faced teammates and coaches in a crowded convention hall ballroom, Edward Dudley-Robey slides under the barbell at the American Powerlifting Federation (APF) California State Championship for his first bench press of the meet. Flanked by three spotters, he lowers the bar to his chest, struggling to focus his nervous energy on lifting it back up without any unnecessary movement that would disqualify him. On the judge’s command, he pushes the bar smoothly off his chest.

Dudley-Robey, a fourth-year medical student with an eager, polite demeanor seemingly at odds with the high-octane sport of powerlifting, has two busy months ahead of him. He’ll graduate from medical school, take Step 1 and head to Daytona Beach, Florida, for the APF Senior Nationals. And then comes the challenge of applying for residency—and matching—as an older international medical graduate (IMG).

That February morning at the state meet, Dudley-Robey wound up with both a medal and his proud coach’s monstrous arm around his neck. He hopes it isn’t the only success of his year.

At 33, Dudley-Robey comes from the “Emergency!” generation of future physicians. The TV program initially piqued his interest in pre-hospital emergency care. “They’d defibrillate someone every week, even if the patient only had a hangover,” he remembers.

While still in high school, he became involved with the Los Angeles Police Department Explorers, a co-ed pre-professional program, and volunteered to train others in CPR. After receiving basic nursing training in the Army, Dudley-Robey worked in Los Angeles-area ERs. After being licensed as a naturopath, he decided he also needed a strong allopathic background to succeed in medicine.

Dudley-Robey graduates next month from the University of Science, Arts and Technology, a Caribbean school on the tiny island of Montserrat. The school began instructing students in 2003, according to the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates’ database of foreign schools.

Most of his preclinical course work took place on the island, but he has pursued most of his clinical training in the United States. In March, he rotated in the preventive medicine department at Griffin Hospital in Connecticut, and he has completed many other clerkships in the Los Angeles area.

Those L.A. rotations have been convenient for his powerlifting training at FIT gym in nearby Sherman Oaks. “Anyone will tell you you need distraction from medical school or you’ll go nuts,” he says. “And this is perfect.”

It does seem that way. His practice schedule includes only two three-hour sessions a week, since recovery is a big part of the training model, he explains. For their practice lifts, he and his teammates “put up” weights close to their maximum capability with very few repetitions. They stick to the events they’d face in a powerlifting competition: bench press, squat and the dead lift.

It is in this regard that powerlifting differs from competitive Olympic-style weightlifting. The latter consists of two events, and lifting involves complex motions to hoist the bar from the floor. Powerlifting, on the other hand, involves more isolated movements using stationary equipment like you’d find at your local YMCA—only with a lot more weight on heavier bars.

Unlike recreational weightlifting, however, there are very specific rules. In bench press, for instance, the bar must be stationary until the judge commands the lifter to start—no bouncing off the rib cage for that extra pop. The bar must remain level during the lift, the legs must not move, and the competitor must “lock out” their elbows at the top, again bringing the bar to a stop.

Scot Mendelson, who Dudley-Robey frequently calls “the strongest bencher on Earth,” is the APF’s demigod and Dudley-Robey’s coach. Mendelson is known for being the first man to bench press more than 1,000 lbs., and the feat makes him a frequent reference point throughout the fragmented powerlifting scene, which is divided into principalities delineated mostly on what you can wear when you compete.

The APF, for instance, allows the use of bench shirts made of denim or canvas, stiff fabrics that help an experienced lifter pop the bar off his chest at the bottom of the lift. Other leagues allow no such shirts, or restrict the use of joint wrapping. There are distinctions in drug testing as well. The APF does not require testing except in its amateur division.

Dudley-Robey thinks of his federation as the big leagues. “The APF is where most of the records are set,” he explains.

His winning bench press in his class was 275 lbs., perhaps not outside the range of many recreational lifters. But the lift was enough to win the competition, and he was nursing a wrist injury at the time. His personal best bench press was 507, but in powerlifting, it’s all about the moment, not about the max. The true competition comes in how lifters, under the pressure of the competition and amid the noise, use their three chances to lift the bar to the satisfaction of the judges.

“In football, if you make a bad play,” he notes, “you have four quarters to make it up.” Not so in this three-chance sport.

Strategy—adapting to your performance—is also part of the equation. Lifters have only one minute between lifts to tell the judge what their next weight will be. Some competitors open with their most ambitious weight. Others need to shake off the jitters out of the gate with an easy start.

Sometimes, nervous energy drives that first try—and sometimes nerves ruin the lift.

“In the gym,” he says of practice, “even with your coach yelling and screaming at you, it’s different.” The unknown, he says, is the adrenaline and the stress. Dudley-Robey won the state meet on his first lift.

Already, his mind is on the nationals in the middle of June. The state meet was his first, and the nationals might be his last, opportunity to be competitive. Though his medical school schedule has permitted him the time to train, residency probably won’t.

He plans on vying for an internal medicine spot in the 2008 Match. His ultimate interest is sports medicine, but he’s realistic about his prospects for becoming an NFL team doctor or anything flashy. “There aren’t that many of those jobs out there, and there are a lot of really good guys doing them,” he explains. Instead, he’d be happy practicing in primary care, with an emphasis on athletes. “I can relate to athletes a little differently than someone who hasn’t been one.” That population, he says, often hides injuries and speaks a different language than most physicians.

Beyond his interest in athletics, he is also concerned about public health at large. Just look at this society’s obesity rates, he implores. “Sports has got to become a larger part of the U.S. lifestyle.”

Assuming he matches next year, he’ll be 37 or 38 by the time he’s done with his medical training, and probably with his powerlifting career. “For every athlete who competes through older ages, there are dozens who can’t do that,” he says. “This really is probably my last competitive year.”

Beyond nationals and boards, Dudley-Robey’s mind is also on residency interviews, and he’s trying to secure every advantage he can for that application. U.S.-born IMGs had a 50-50 chance of matching this year, with graduates of stateside allopathic medical schools filling 56 percent of internal medicine positions, according to National Resident Matching Program data. And unlike powerlifting—“the weight is the weight,” he says, “either you lift it or you don’t”—program directors’ judgments are subjective. Interviews are “nerve-wracking,” he says, and he thinks his age might be seen as a disadvantage.

After his boards and nationals, he’ll pick up some nursing shifts in the ER to earn a living, and work on finding a residency spot. “I’m hoping that I’m a good enough person,” he says of his candidacy, “and a good enough student.”
Pete Thomson is associate editor of The New Physician.