Pathway to Physician: A Life-Challenge

Author: Eytan Koch MD
I’m 52 years old today.  I need to let that sink in  for a minute.  It’s not considered one of the more “important” birthdays, like for example, the Big 5-0.  But when you take on a life-changing challenge at an older age, each birthday becomes more meaningful.
Here’s what I mean:

After a successful 20 year career in personal training, which I loved, by the way, I felt like I needed more challenge in my life. I felt I could do more, help people on a deeper level. So in 2009, at the ripe old age of 40, I embarked on the long road to become a doctor.

And long road it is. For those of you who don’t know, you don’t just “up” and decide to go to medical school. You have to take your med school prerequisites like biology, physics, general and organic chemistry, biochemistry, and so on. Just taking these courses took me about 3 years. Oh, and you have to do well. Really, really well.

Then you take this huge, nasty exam called the MCAT. I studied for the MCAT for about 6 months, 4 to 8 hours a day. You also have to do some kind of volunteer work (so that the medical schools know you have a good soul), and get some sort of medical experience like shadowing a doctor.

Next, you apply to medical schools, and that application process isn’t cheap. I spent around two thousand dollars on my application.

Then, if your grades and MCAT score are high enough, and you have enough community service and medical experience, and the medical gods are smiling upon you, you MIGHT get a few interviews at a medical school. After the interviews, you sit tight, and just hope for a couple months. Then you hear back.

About 40 percent of applicants get into medical school.

The rest, the unfortunate majority, either apply again, or after years of dedication and blood, sweat and tears, simply decide to do something else with their lives.

It was definitely an uphill battle. I had many enemies to fight. Let me tell you guys something. Ageism is real. Both in applying to medical schools AND residency programs, a couple of my interviewers were very open about the fact that they thought that in my early to mid 40s, I was too old. I was shocked that they weren’t even trying to hide it.

But the biggest foe I had to battle was myself. Inertia is a daunting opponent.

To paraphrase the Newtonian cliche, once you’re set in your ways, it’s hard to find the energy to break out of your paradigm and build a new one. I had decades of NOT being a medical student/doctor under my belt, and was lucky enough to be living a fairly comfortable, easy life. Did I really want to totally uproot and face all that hard work, all that expense, all that sacrifice that would be necessary to change my career and become a doctor?

So there was that. But even worse than inertia, self-doubt is a powerful de-motivator. Even though I feel like I’ve accomplished a good deal in my life, self-doubt has definitely stopped me from accomplishing much, much more. Why bother trying if you’re probably just going to fail?

And to further complicate matters, my own self-doubt was bolstered by external doubts. I talked to many, many doctors about the feasibility of going to medical school at an “older” age, and the vast majority – literally all but one – advised against it. You won’t get accepted at your age, they predicted. Or if you do, you’ll likely fail out; you haven’t been a student in decades! Listening to them, and to myself, would have definitely been the path of least resistance. Luckily, as a personal trainer, I was skilled in the art of “resistance training”, and I pushed through every metaphorical rep and set that was placed in front of me.

(By the way, once you’re a doctor, a new version of self-doubt infects you, called “imposter syndrome.” You have no idea how you are actually good enough to be a doctor, and you are shocked that you have managed to fake everyone out to this point, but worry that at any moment, they will uncover the “truth” and end the dream for you. I just hope they don’t realize they’ve been duped till after my fellowship.)

But I ignored agism and pushed through inertia and self doubt. (At least I didn’t have to worry about ROUSs, but as you wish.) I worked really hard and did really well. I applied to med schools and was lucky enough to have been offered a small number of acceptances. I chose Howard University College of Medicine, an incredible, underrated school without a fancy name, but which obviously changed my life. I worked hard, did well, and graduated in 2018.  Against stiff odds, I had become a physician. I ended up in one of the best residency programs in the country for my field.

I’m now in my third year out of four in residency. Although you earn your MD or DO degree upon graduation from medical school, and therefore, are a doctor, you still have to undergo years more of training as an intern, resident, and maybe fellow (if you choose that) before you can practice independently. After my final year of residency my plan is to do a one-year fellowship in sports medicine.

So yes. I celebrate 52 years on this earth today, and it’s an important birthday for me as they all are. I celebrate what I’ve been able to accomplish, and what I’m going to do in the future.

I’ve been on this journey since 2009. Here we are, 12 years later, and although I can clearly see the light at the end of the tunnel, the journey isn’t over.

But I’m still here, and I’ll keep pushing. I know I’ve touched a few patients’ lives on the way, and I hope to touch many more, which really what keeps me going.

Have a great weekend, everyone!