At long last for the Class of 2013: Match Day

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The students are packed into Skippers’ Smokehouse and buzzing with excitement, impatient for Dr. Steve Specter to pick up the microphone  and call out the first name.

“Maxwell Daniel Miller!”

And with that, Miller heads toward the stage, and toward his future.

This is the moment that Miller – and 106 other students — have been waiting for.

One by one, the members of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine Class of 2013 will hear their name called. They’ll go up front, and open an envelope that will chart the course of their careers.

What kind of doctor will they be? Where will they practice? Will they stay with family or move far away? Will their dreams come true – or be crushed?

It’s Match Day, an annual ritual unique to graduating medical students. Students across the country rank their specialties and the programs where they would like to study. The programs rank the students. At noon today, USF’s medical students start learning the results.

***

Daniel Matta came to America when he was 13.

By then, he already dreamed of becoming a doctor. When he was six, his new baby brother came down with meningitis.

“If I’m a doctor, I can fix my little brother,” was his six-year-old thought. “So I want to be a doctor.”

His brother’s lingering medical problems – including a misdiagnosis of epilepsy – prompted the family’s move to Tampa from Colombia.  Matta’s brother got better. In Tampa, he and other family members got medical care at the Judeo-Christian Clinic. Matta began volunteering there as an interpreter.

Matta saw two things up close: his own family’s challenges getting access to care with no insurance; and the difference that the clinic’s doctors made in their patients’ lives.

“I liked the interaction between primary care doctors and their patients,” Matta said. “I enjoyed working with the underserved population. I felt like I was helping people.”

Matta went on to college at USF, where he started volunteering at the BRIDGE Clinic. He started as an interpreter, and eventually became the clinic’s manager.  Once he started medical school, he continued his work with BRIDGE, serving this year as co-director.

Matta has also been active in Project World Health, going on annual medical mission trips to the Dominican Republic.

Through it all, he has never swerved from his commitment to primary care. He plans to match in family medicine, hopefully at Bayfront Medical Center, so he could stay close to his family and continue his volunteer work.

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“Everybody has said that – ‘You’ll change your mind,’ ‘’ he said. “But this is what I love.”

***

Miller comes up front with his classmates shouting encouragement.

“I’ve never been first at anything before,” he jokes.

He opens the envelope and smiles: emergency medicine, Eastern Virginia Medical School.

It’s on: students are matching at Emory and at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

Wake Forest, Boston University. USF, USF, USF.

Some students bring their spouses up to the stage.

Josh Robertson brings his wife, their baby, and his six-year-old niece.

He pumps his fist when he sees his match: Carolinas Medical Center, his first choice.

“This is our adventure,” he says.

***

Amber Pepper has already heard the jokes.

“My whole class has just been waiting for me to be Dr. Pepper,” she said.

But Pepper, who married her college sweetheart a year ago, is okay with having an unusual name. She grew up in Ocala as Amber Nardandrea, and the town was small enough that she always got asked the same question:

Is your father Dr. Nardandrea?

“I would run into his patients, and they would say how grateful they were, how he had taken good care of them and really made a difference in their lives,” she said.

When she was an undergraduate student at the University of Florida, Pepper’s father never pushed her towards medicine. “He wanted me to find my own path,” she said.

But his patients did that job for him.

“I realized following in my father’s footsteps would be…awesome,” she said.

So Pepper set her sights on medical school. Then, just a few months before she was to start at USF, she started having terrible headaches. Her vision blurred. Her parents took her to the emergency room.

Her father came up with the possible diagnosis: idiopathic intracranial hypertension.

Pepper didn’t fit the typical patterns for having sudden high pressure inside her skull. But she had had her wisdom teeth removed just a week before.

The condition threatened to cause permanent damage to her vision. She was sick for weeks, undergoing repeated spinal taps to lower the pressure of cerebrospinal fluid in her head.

During Pepper’s hospital stay, a family friend recited a bit of career wisdom for her: “Patients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It was advice that Pepper would hold close. After recovering from the ordeal, she started medical school with a deep sense of purpose.

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Her dedication has paid off in stellar grades. Now Pepper, 25, plans to match in internal medicine; she hopes eventually to do a fellowship in allergy and immunology.

The only question is where. Pepper’s husband, Dan, loves his current job in commercial real estate – and only one place in the state has the fellowship program that Pepper wants to do.

That’s why her top choice is to stay right where she is: at USF.

***

For many of the students here, Match Day is one of the biggest days of their lives.

For Kenzo Koike, it’s not even the biggest day of his week.

But then, yesterday Koike and his wife, Janie, welcomed their first child into the world. Janie and their new baby – son James Kazunari Koike – are watching Match Day from USF Health’s live stream on Facebook.

“It’s great to be here and enjoy the celebration,” says Koike.

***

Halfway through medical school, Jessica Goldonowicz’ life turned upside down.

Until then, her life seemed charmed. She had grown up in Brandon, the oldest of two girls. Her parents, both teachers, were devoted to the girls, eventually homeschooling them to make sure they got the best possible education. Goldonowicz even took a human anatomy class her senior year in high school, cementing her interest in medicine.

“I thought, ‘Wow, I’m learning about myself,’ ‘’  she said. “It was an incredible realization of the potential for lifelong learning.”

Goldonowicz went on to the University of Central Florida, majoring in molecular biology and microbiology, before coming to USF for medical school.

There was just one cloud on the family’s horizon. When Goldonowicz was 6, her father was diagnosed with hepatitis C, the result of a long-ago blood transfusion.

“That was when I first became aware of medicine,” she said. “I knew there was something wrong with my dad. I knew he was sick. I didn’t understand, but I wanted to know more.”

Still, Goldonowicz’ father was careful of his health, devoted to healthy living and being there for his family.

Until halfway through her second year of medical school, when he developed a serious blood infection and was hospitalized at Tampa General.

Goldonowicz would go to class each day, then head to Tampa General to spend the evening with her father. She would get home at midnight, get some sleep, repeat. Days blurred together, but she kept going. Her father’s infection puzzled his doctors and resisted treatment even to vancomycin, even though antibiotic sensitivities showed that it was an appropriate medication.

More drugs finally cleared the infection, but their side effects damaged his liver and kidneys. Goldonowicz was juggling classes learning about hepato-renal syndrome and watching her father struggle as his organs began to fail.

As her father became sicker, Goldonowicz called Dr. Steve Specter, associate dean for Student Affairs. She took a leave of absence to stay by her father’s side. Six days later, he died.

“It was tough, but I have received so many blessings,” she said. “The support from Dr. Specter, and my classmates, and our faculty has been unreal.”

Classmates brought her family dinner at the hospital and came to her father’s funeral. Their kindness and empathy has stayed with her.

“We are a family,” she said. “My classmates have been an incredible source of support to me and took care of me when I needed them the most. I will never forget the love I’ve been shown.”

She plans to go into emergency medicine, and give back the kindness she received.

“I’m so much more aware now,” she said. “As a doctor, you can walk into work in the morning and say this is just another day for you – but for your patients, it’s could be the worst day of their lives. Nobody comes to the emergency room for fun. My job is to help make their day a little bit better.”

***

Alexander Wang has been waiting for today for a long time. He knows where he wants to match: New York Methodist Hospital. It has the perfect emergency medicine program that he wants and New York to boot.

So when he opens his envelope, he screams “New York!” And then he rips open his Match Day t-shirt to reveal the emblem on the T-shirt he’s wearing underneath. His classmates roar.

Today, he is Superman.

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“I’m just really, really excited for all of us,” Wang says. “We’ve been waiting for several months and it’s great to have that burden lifted off our shoulders.”

***

When Dr. Specter calls Goldonowicz to the stage, she opens her envelope and then covers her mouth in delight.

Her voice breaks as she reads out her first choice: Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.

Pepper brings her husband Dan up front, so they can see the envelope together: USF, just what she wanted.

“I knew she was going to get it, absolutely,” Dan Pepper says. “She’s a star.”

Matta matches at Bayfront, and then it gets even better: several of his friends have matched their as well. As Match Day comes to a close, there are hugs all around.

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Goldonowicz poses for a picture with her mother, Janice, and her little sister, Joanna.  Her mother talks about Jessica’s father, and how proud he would be today.

“He used to tell her, ‘I’ll give you a lot of practice. I’ll be your first patient,’ “ she said. “And in many ways, he was.”

Class of 2013: Staying at USF, 24; Staying in Florida, 45; Number in primary care: 51

- Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications; video by Allyn DiVito, USF Health Information Systems


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