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Match Day — Meet the New (Future) Face of Neurology

ARTICLE IN BRIEF

This year's Match Day drew a record number of fourth-year medical school students to neurology residency programs. We tell their stories here.

Sarah Levy was on her neurology rotation at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York when a high school football player arrived with his mother. He told doctors that he thought he had passed out a few times. He had also been vomiting. A cardio workup found nothing so the emergency department (ED) doctors ordered a neurology consult.

Levy listened to the patient's story, as she loves to do. She proceeded with the neurological exam. She asked for the lights to be turned off and she stared into his eyes as he followed her hand movements. His fundi appeared swollen and red. His history and the clinical exam made her wonder about the possibility of seizures. The resident agreed, and they sent him over to the hospital for a brain scan. There it was: leptomeningeal carcinoma, a cancer that had spread to the membranes surrounding his brain. That was the day that Sarah Levy knew she wanted to become a neurologist.

This year, Levy was one of 500 US fourth-year medical students out of a total of 1,142 applicants for neurology residency programs; that total includes foreign physicians and medical school students, according to the National Residency Matching Program.

On Match Day — March 16th — 280 US fourth-year medical students matched into first-year programs leading them into a career in neurology. Each received the sacred white envelope, an email, and/or a call from a residency program administrator congratulating them and ushering in the next generation of neurologists. Levy matched to the place that taught her to love neurology: the Icahn School of Medicine.

“We look for people who are passionate about neurology and will take the field in new directions with their leadership, creativity, and diversity,” said Tracey A. Cho, MD, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and program director for the Harvard-Brigham and Women's Hospital-Massachusetts General Hospital Neurology Residency program. “The field is drawing more students with broader interests and experiences. It is also more competitive,” said Dr. Cho, who is also chair of the AAN Neuro-Infectious Diseases Section. The dual Harvard program received 400 applications, and they interviewed 80 students for 18 slots. They filled them all.

Neurology Today reached out to neurology chairs, residency program directors, and a dozen almost newly-minted physicians whose passion and respect for the mysteries of the human brain and the patient experience and love of research brought them into the fold. They are a generation of students who have traveled to underserved countries to learn and assist; they are soldiers, immigrants, and children of immigrants. They were asked a simple question: Why neurology?

FROM MARINES TO MEDICINE

Anthony Harrington's journey to neurology came through a rough-and-tumble childhood in Overland Park, KS, to a four-year stint in the Marines, and on to medical school, where he was drawn into neurology. “I fell in love with teaching during the Marines,” explained Harrington. “When I got to medical school and started rotations, patients would say that I take the time and break down what is happening to them. The patients I see are underserved. I can relate to them on a very personal level.”

Born to a single mom who ended up in jail and a father he never knew, Harrington was raised by his maternal grandparents. They taught him a thing or two about not giving up, he said, but his resolve was tested on multiple occasions.

When Anthony was 9, these events would shift the ground beneath him: His grandfather suddenly and unexpectedly died; his official adoption papers were ready to be signed, and his grandmother had to do it alone.

Anthony focused on school. He loved science and history and English literature. At 16, his world shifted again. His grandmother became ill when he was in the eleventh grade and went to live with another daughter in Oregon. The teenager remained in Overland Park and worked to pay the rent. He studied even harder. Six months after high school graduation, a life at Sam's Club was not what he envisioned for himself. He drove down to a recruitment center and joined the Marines, in large part because he knew it would give him access to more learning.

He became a three-time expert on the rifle. He also learned that he was good at teaching. When his tours were over, he used his savings and the GI Bill to apply for admission to Colorado University in Boulder. “On a whim, I applied and was accepted,” he said. He took on two majors: evolutionary biology and ecology, and psychology.

For the first time in his life, he thought that it might be possible to become a doctor. He had the smarts, the financial backing of the GI Bill, and all the determination it would take to get into medical school. He was accepted into Kansas University Medical School. He was interested in clinical research and started studying myasthenia gravis (MG), sorting through charts to try to identify any triggers that might lead to a new MG episode. (He and his colleagues identified acute infection as a trigger.) He also continued to explore his love of teaching.

In his second year, he and a friend started a lecture series. It was packed with 60 first-year students. That same year, his grandmother called and asked if he would like to video chat with his mother, who was visiting. A lifetime of drugs had taken its toll on her body. Mother and son talked — and he let her know that he forgave her. That was December 23rd. The next day, she came down with a bacterial infection, and the following day, Christmas, she died.

During his fourth year of medical school, he was invited to do a neurology rotation at the University of Colorado. He spent two weeks on the in-patient service and another two weeks in the movement disorders clinic. “That sealed the deal for University of Colorado,” said Harrington. “Everyone made me feel I was part of the team. It felt like community.”

He applied for residency and got matched there. One other friend from the medical school in Kansas matched in neurology there, as well as four others who matched in other specialties. It is this sense of community that he shares with his patients. “I see myself as someone who doesn't neglect patient education. I explain everything and let them know that we are in this together.”

Douglas E. Ney, MD, FAAN, associate professor and director of the residency training program at the University of Colorado, had eight slots to offer 100 people who arrived for interviews last fall. (There were a record 500 applications.)

“Anthony is a story of resilience,” said the neuro-oncologist. “He is a hard worker and has a determination that is seen in few people his age. He did a wonderful job during his sub-internship in neurology while he was a medical student. Many of our students have determination, but Anthony goes above and beyond.”

So, too, do many of the other neurology residents who spoke to Neurology Today just one day after they learned where the next few years would take them.

THE FRESH NEW FACES OF NEUROLOGY

One day after Match Day, Neurology Today reached out to programs across the country to learn more about the newest group of neurology trainees. Many had overcome great obstacles to get where they are. They are immigrants and children of immigrants, world travelers and ‘Renaissance’ men, and first-generation college graduates. What they have in common is an unbridled idealism and curiosity that drew them to neurology. Their stories resonate. We think you'll agree. Read their stories here: http://bit.ly/NT-FaceofNeurology.

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SARAH LEVY

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SAFA ABDELHAKIM

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JINGLING CHEN

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JUAN CAMILO CORTES

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MANI VELTCHEVA

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MICHAEL STANLEY

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SUNG DAVID JEON

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EARLLONDA BROOKS

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ANTHONY HARRINGTON