Chance to Prove Mettle for Medical School

Posted in GUMC Stories

Despite almost three months of non-stop classes followed by intense bouts of studying, Leah Broadhurst says she wakes up everyday “with a smile on my face — despite the stressful workload.” Broadhurst is a student in the Georgetown Experimental Medical Studies Program (GEMS), and she says she is living her dream.

Broadhurst has always wanted to be a physician — and she would be the first in her family to work in health care — but her MCAT test scores and undergraduate grades from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, were not competitive. So Broadhurst taught 8th grade science then earned a master’s degree in public health before finding, applying to, and entering GEMS. “I will do whatever is necessary to make it into medical school,” she says. Her hope is to specialize in infectious disease and help the people in rural North Carolina.

Rafael Sanchez, a Florida Keys resident whose parents are Cuban, also worked as a teacher and a football coach after he left Kenyon College with a grade point average that was too low to enter medical school. His taste for medicine undiminished, Sanchez moonlighted as a unit clerk on a night shift at a hospital. He studied for the MCAT and took it twice. This summer, four years after leaving college, he entered GEMS. “I’m loving it,” Sanchez says. “My growth has been incredible — I feel I have learned more in these first few months than I have in my entire life.”

Sanchez, who played college football, is set on becoming an orthopedist with a practice in Florida. “I want to combine my two loves — medicine and athletics. I know it will be difficult — it is a hard field to break into — but I now believe I can do it.”

These are two of the 21 students in GEMS, now in its 35th year, and believed to be the longest standing program in the nation whose primary goal is to prepare disadvantaged and minority students to study medicine. Many of these students — African-Americans, Mainland Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and Native Americans — have been traditionally under-represented in medicine. All meet the program’s academic criteria and show evidence of their ability to satisfy the social and educational goals of the program.

These students are smart, and only need a chance to prove their mettle, says the GEMS program coordinator, Joy Phinizy Williams, senior associate dean for students and special programs at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.

GEMS students take courses selected from the first year medical curriculum and are graded on the same basis as medical students. They also take graduate level biochemistry as well as elective courses.

Notably, a core of deans at the medical school mentor students, teaching them new ways to study, organize their time, and manage their workloads. The list includes Williams, who has been with the program since the 1979; Shryl Sistrunk, M.D., associate dean for curriculum and assessment and senior clinical advisor to GEMS since 2001; and David Taylor, M.Ed., assistant dean for student learning, associated with GEMS since 1990. Both active and retired faculty have been actively involved with GEMS including William R. Ayers, M.D., Elliott Crooke, Ph.D., Eugene Davidson, Ph.D., Martin Dym, Ph.D., Adam Myers, Ph.D., Sona Vasudevan, Ph.D., and Benjamin Walker, Ph.D.

So many GEMS students and graduates cite those newfound skills as integral to their success. For example, Jillian Canton, a 3rd year medical student at Georgetown, said GEMS taught her how to “think critically and analyze the medical school curriculum in a way in which I could excel during my first and second year classes.” Canton now tutors other medical school students.

Rueben Falola, who graduated from GEMS last year and now is a 1st year medical student at Georgetown, says he “thought he could do everything by himself,” but GEMS stressed a group structure that required students to share their perspective about what they learned. “It fortified what I had learned,” he says. “I am really prepared now for team based medicine.”

Passionate, Committed Students

The first GEMS students entered the fledgling program in 1976, which evolved from a federally funded summer program for minority students. The eight students who were on the waiting list for Howard University or George Washington did really well, and were so prepared that “the faculty believed they were ready to begin their medical studies,” Williams says. All were admitted to Georgetown, adding to the diversity of the school’s learning environment, and to the diversity of the profession.

Since then, 644 students have matriculated from GEMS, and 371 have graduated from Georgetown. “These students are well-suited to Georgetown,” Williams says. “They are great human beings, with a passion and commitment to work with the underserved.”

Beri Massa, MD, a 2nd year resident at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, points out how perfect it is that GEMS is at Georgetown. “The mantra of the medical center is to ‘see’ and treat the whole person, and in a way, that is what they did for me. GEMS took the entire measure of who I am into account, not just my college grades or MCAT score,” she says. “GEMS gave me the chance to prove that I am a bright person, that I can do the work if I stay focused.

“It taught me a new way of studying, thinking, test taking, and presentation skills,” says Massa, a Virginia native who attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I can now understand the big picture and master minutia at the same time. It provided me with so much of the framework for who I am today and what I want to do.”

She wants to become a neonatologist in the Washington, D.C. area “I always wanted to be a pediatrician and GEMS gave me that opportunity.”

Jay Graham, M.D., wanted to be doctor since the 9th grade. GEMS reached out to him and he knew right away that the program would be a good fit.

“The program taught me how to be an adult — how to take responsibility, be pragmatic, punctual, delegate your time, be emotionally mature,” says Graham. “The course work was easy after that.

“GEMS gave me a life raft to make it to land. I was certainly out to sea before then,” he says.

Program faculty also pointed out to Graham that he was really good with his hands. Once accepted to Georgetown, surgeons encouraged him to pursue surgery, which he did. After earning his M.D., he did his surgical residency at Georgetown, and he is now at Columbia University, in a fellowship for abdominal organ transplant surgery. He wants to perform kidney and pancreas transplantation.

Yes, Graham admits he has worked hard. But he says “I owe it all to Dave Taylor, Joy Williams and other Georgetown faculty and deans. They had the foresight to put together a program like this.”

GEMS was one of the most intensive times in his life. He recalls studying or being in class from 5:30 a.m. until midnight.

“It was boot camp. But it was the most fun I have ever had, and I’d do it all over again,” says Graham.

He adds that the lessons he learned from GEMS will stay with him for a lifetime. They were: “Get over your minority status. Don’t make excuses. Do what you need to do. Move forward with as much hard work as you can.”

By Renee Twombly, GUMC Communications

(Published Oct. 3, 2012)