In a ceremony laced with excitement, anticipation and tradition, fourth-year medical students in the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University learned where they will spend the next three to seven years completing residency training.
The March 17 event marked a milestone for the Class of 2023, whose medical school journey included the historic events of learning through the COVID-19 pandemic and the integration of Brody and then-Vidant Health, which became ECU Health in 2022.
Match Day is arguably the pinnacle of medical school, when students discover their next destination surrounded by friends, family and Brody faculty and staff who have guided them over the years. Michael Waldrum, dean of the Brody School of Medicine and CEO of ECU Health, said that wherever the students are matched, they already have a reputation of being health care providers who put the individual patient at the center of their practice.
“Brody students come out of medical school knowing how to do hard work and take care of humans. It’s a very hands-on practical education. They learn how to take care of people which is what becoming a doctor is all about, and the experience they get here sets them apart,” Waldrum said.
The students were presented to the audience of family, friends and members of the Brody community with collages of photos along with music that each selected.
Kari Beasley, from Cary, wanted to use the song “Soulful Strut” from the movie “The Parent Trap” — but only if one of her mentors, Jason Higginson, agreed to learn the handshake from the movie and perform it on stage with her.
Beasley, who matched with Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond to pursue an obstetrics and gynecology track, said that both Jason Higginson, the executive dean of Brody, and his wife Amanda Higginson, Brody’s interim associate dean for student affairs, were an important part of her medical school experience.
“Being the amazing dean that he is, he said, ‘Of course, absolutely, I’ll do the handshake with you.’ Today, we pulled it off,” Beasley said. “It made it more special that he and I got to do the handshake together because the Higginsons have been a great part of my experience here at Brody.”
While Higginson had seen the movie, he didn’t remember the handshake and dance until she showed him the clip.
“She asked me if I would do it with her and I said you’re really challenging an old man with no rhythm. We practiced it yesterday in my office and then I practiced it with my daughter all night last night,” Higginson said.
The relationships that he and fellow faculty members build with their students is unique because he didn’t have interactions with the administration when he was in medical school.
“This is probably one of the best days in the life of a medical school. This is the day where all of your dreams get realized,” Higginson said. “A lot of them are staying here, which is something we are proud of. Almost 50 percent of the class is staying in North Carolina and that’s fantastic. That’s our mission.”
The Class of 2023 is a snapshot of Brody’s mission to serve the state. The 77 members of the class represent more than 25 North Carolina counties, from Buncombe in the west to Pasquotank in the northeast.
With envelopes in hand that revealed their futures, the students took time to celebrate their accomplishments and reflect on what comes next.
‘What small change can I do?’
When there’s a problem, Merdi Lutete is busy seeking a solution.
Lutete, who was born and raised in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, has the mindset of not standing by and expecting others to act — instead, she wants to know how she can help and how her skills and knowledge can lend to a long-term resolution.
“With a lot of issues we encounter, we see a problem and we say, ‘Well, someone else can do it,’” she said. “What’s helped me has been that mindset of, ‘Well, there’s a problem. What can I do about that? I’m probably not even going to get to the surface of the issue, but what small change can I do for this?’”
Lutete has used that formula throughout her life, including medical school. Lutete founded I Am First, an organization that partners first-generation medical students with mentors who can guide them through the medical school process.
“I think it will definitely contribute a lot,” she said. “I was able to apply it to school and I can put it to other areas too, and medicine as well.”
Lutete matched in adult neurology at Duke University Medical School in Durham. As she opened her Match Day envelope, she was surrounded by family and friends, some whose smiles shown through phone screens. Her hands shook as she revealed the folded paper printed with her next destination.
“I was nervous,” she said, laughing as those around her cheered, “but I feel good.”
Lutete studied neuroscience at ECU during her undergraduate years; she initially became interested in neurology in high school, when she took a psychology course and witnessed her father face a health challenge. His doctor was careful to include the family in medical conversations and make sure they understood the situation and options.
“That personal thing really touched me a lot,” she said. “I really wanted to do something like that with patients as well.”
Seeing her own family go through a health challenge and now having the perspective of a student doctor helped Lutete better understand the sacrifices her family and community have made to help her get where she is today. Her parents moved the family from Kinshasa to Raleigh in 2005 to pursue more opportunities. The Congolese community in Raleigh has also rallied behind Lutete and her success. Lutete worked with other students and Brody faculty and staff on an initiative to share information with the families of medical students so that they better understand the process their students will experience in the coming years. It was her way of acknowledging the village that it takes for students to succeed.
“It truly means a lot to them and a lot to me to see that,” she said of the support she’s received from those around her. “One thing about first generation that I really think is powerful is that you’re standing on the backs of many people’s sacrifices. You know that the successes you have you can’t attribute to yourself because you know every single person had a role in that. You’re literally standing on the backs of other people’s sacrifices.”
When Lutete thinks about community, she thinks about how Brody has prepared her for her next steps.
“Brody does a great job of teaching you how to care for the individual, how to care for the patient that you’re seeing in front of you,” she said. “I can give you a prescription for medication, but can you afford it? I can tell you to come back next week for an appointment, but can you afford to come back? Brody really teaches you how to think about the patient and how their story applies to the situation.”
Success found through love, teamwork
When you start off down an arduous path, it’s good to have a friend by your side. When that friend ends up being the person you fall in love with and plan to keep walking life’s paths hand in hand, all the better.
The first week of classes at the Brody School of Medicine in the fall of 2019, Bethany Laden and Caleb Oakley were out with mutual friends working through the awkwardness of meeting the classmates you’ll share the next four years with. He bought her a drink, she told him her favorite book was The Great Gatsby (from which he quoted the last line — smooth) and Bethany said, “we’ve been together ever since.”
Laden was raised in an Air Force family and lived in England and Guam, but mostly in Harrisburg, near Charlotte. She studied biology at NC State and initially intended to apply for a physician assistant program but applied to Brody after graduation. She spent a year as a medical assistant and two years of conducting urology research in Durham. Witnessing a baby being delivered set her mind to being an obstetrician and gynecologist.
“I really like working with my hands — being in the operating room and doing surgery. When I was on my women’s health rotation that’s where I found my passion — working with women, empowering them through their pregnancies and the rest of their lives,” Laden said.
Oakley is from Roxboro and knew he wanted to be a doctor since high school. A teacher showed the movie “Chernobyl Heart,” which chronicled missionaries who fixed the cardiac conditions faced by children who were affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Oakley’s family was particularly religious and did missionary work along the east coast and the film inspired him to be the same kind of doctor who helped people who needed the most help.
He worked as a medical scribe in high school, and then again during his undergraduate education at ECU, where he double majored in biology and chemistry. His first application to medical school didn’t work out, so Oakley taught as a substitute, trained to be a paramedic, worked on food trucks across eastern North Carolina and even prepped alligator meat at a seafood company in Morehead City.
Oakley’s intended career path lies at the other end of the birthing process from Laden. As a doubled-board certified doctor working in internal medicine and pediatrics, he’ll be able to treat patients across the continuum of birth to death.
“They tell you when you start medical school that you’ll find your niche. I had a really good experience out at ECU Health-Duplin which confirmed it for me,” Oakley said.
Early in their relationship they agreed that school would come first and “I’m not going to let you distract me,” Laden remembered. But before long, when she finished studying at 11 p.m., she would try to track him down in the Brody building.
Their relationship took some work, because relationships on their own are difficult Oakley said. Layering the physical, mental and emotional challenges of training to be a doctor on top of creating a new life with another person makes things even more challenging, but with great challenges come great rewards.
“I don’t say this all the time, but she’s my rock. If I feel I need to lean on somebody, I’m going to her,” Oakley said.
Laden agreed. Having someone in her corner, someone who understands the specific challenges of medical school, has been invaluable.
“There’s so much that we go through that people don’t understand,” Laden said. “Not just the logistics of how medical training works, but the terminology and the emotional work that you have to do.”
Match Day is incredibly stressful for any medical student — will you get the hospital you want? Will it be on the other side of the country? For a soon-to-be-married couple, the stressors compound — would they be assigned to hospitals close together or separated by circumstance?
Laden and Oakley interviewed at more than a dozen of the same hospitals to find a place that could support both of their training paths. When they opened their envelopes, surrounded by their families, the learned their residency would take place at ECU Health Medical Center in Greenville.
“Both of our families live in North Carolina, so we don’t have to worry about moving and we’ve already set up a good sense of community,” Oakley said. “It feels like home.”
The art of emergency medicine
Andrés Gil had graduated from Winthrop University in South Carolina when he came upon an opportunity to be a medical interpreter at a hospital near Charlotte.
The talented violinist was preparing to audition for orchestras and embark on a classical music career when another type of art caught his eye. During his experience as an interpreter, he witnessed a baby being born.
“I remember I was interpreting, the lights were down in the room, it was the early shift so the sun was a nice orange glow lighting up the whole room, and everything was going well,” Gil said. “All of sudden you just hear this cry. It was like art. Watching life come into the world was amazing.”
Gil, who was born and raised in Colombia, made his way to the Brody School of Medicine from there, after selecting the school based on its small class size and its community focus. After realizing he was on the path of his purpose, he began to immerse himself in service and making a difference in others’ lives.
“I never pictured myself as a student doctor in eastern North Carolina,” he said. “It was just never on my radar.”
Gil has flourished, becoming close with his classmates and being inducted into the Gold Humanism Honor Society, a community of medical students, physicians, and other leaders who have been selected by their peers for their compassionate care. Gil was surprised to be named to the group but wants to continue on the path that earned him the recognition.
“The people I get to share that honor with are all beautiful human beings,” he said. “I like having that in my wheelhouse for others to know that this is an opportunity to highlight your career.”
Gil matched in emergency medicine at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte. When he opened his Match Day envelope, tears filled his eyes and he couldn’t speak. A tight circle of family members teared up as well, cheering when he was able to reveal his next stop.
“Charlotte?!” a colleague passing by exclaimed.
“Yes, yes!” Gil nodded, overcome by a fresh burst of tears.
Emergency medicine felt like the right fit for Gil, who has learned to temper his expectations as he went through medical school, hoping for the best but understanding that contingency plans are important to have in place. The specialty also drew him in because of his overwhelming passion for helping people and healing patients who seek him out for assistance.
“Anyone who comes through those doors is not at a great point in their life,” he said, “whether they have pain, addiction, substance abuse, a car accident or things aren’t great at home. These people humble themselves enough to come and seek our help. Knowing that I have an opportunity to somehow have an impact on their lives moves me to a degree that I really can’t describe.”
As Gil prepares to leave Greenville and head west for the next chapter in his story, he hopes that what he’s learned at Brody will help add vitality to his patients’ stories as well.
“An opportunity to give someone grace, to restore their dignity, is so important to me,” he said. “It makes all the scary things about emergency medicine go away. That moment gives you an impetus to work harder to restore this person, so when they leave, they can go back to their life and complete their narrative.”
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