Fighting AIDS compelled this student to become a doctor

by Timothy Dempsey

One thing changes everything.

While this may be a poor paraphrase of the cheesy slogan ESPN used for the recently finished World Cup, in my life this statement has revealed itself as a universal truth. For me, one book changed everything. It would lead me into research labs, on a trip to disease-riddled Gaborone, Botswana, and pique my interest into an epidemic whose global eradication would later become my passion and life’s goal. But most importantly, this book would reaffirm my desire to practice clinical medicine and push me down the path to medical school.

And the Band Played On hardly sounds like a life-altering title. However, the text opened my eyes to the destruction a small particle like HIV can cause. The book, which details the beginnings of the HIV epidemic in America, showed me that a virus can touch every aspect of society, from the political to the medical to the economic. It showed that it was possible for a virus to outsmart even the most intelligent and dedicated of our scientific research community. Most importantly, though, it did more than show me these things — it compelled me to action.

Immediately after finishing the book my junior year of high school, I decided I wanted to work in global health. I began shadowing infectious disease doctors, as I felt this was the discipline of medicine best suited to my interests. When I got to college, I took up HIV research and started a “FACE AIDS” chapter at my school, a national organization focused on helping AIDS patients in Rwanda and Zambia. My interests in HIV and international health only grew through these activities, leading to the decision that eventually I wanted to get both my MPH and MD, do an infectious disease fellowship, and then set up a clinic somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, whether on my own or through Doctors Without Borders. It was about this time I decided I should study abroad in Africa, and truly test my desire to practice international medicine.

Just north of South Africa lies a country few people have heard of, and if they have, it has probably been for all the wrong reasons. Botswana, the country with the second highest HIV prevalence rate in the world, ended up being the perfect place (unfortunately) for me to start my journey into the world of global health. Through a two-month program with Ohio University, I was able to finally put a face to the AIDS disease I had viewed so many times under a microscope in my research lab at the University of Pittsburgh. While I was volunteering with a small hospice in Botswana I was able to view first-hand the injustices common to underdeveloped nations, such as HIV patients being shunned by society and forced to take expired antiretroviral medications. My trip was not the normal college student’s study abroad experience in Europe; in fact, it was far from it. However, this opportunity was a necessity for me, something I needed to see in order to better prepare for the challenges I will undoubtedly face in my future as a health care professional.

Was it, at times, frustrating and depressing to see so much and be able to do so little? Absolutely. Do I want to continue going back and helping the Botswanas of the world? I wouldn’t be embarking on the journey of medical school if I didn’t. If And the Band Played On aroused my interest in AIDS and global health, my trip to Gaborone solidified it. I came back a changed person, more motivated than ever to make an impact in the international medical community. No longer am I going into medicine to “help others” or “fulfill my potential”; now, I want to go into medicine in order to save the Tinys of the world, the AIDS victim who died a terrible death from ovarian cancer while I was working at the hospice in Botswana, or to help teenaged, mother of three, schizophrenic AIDS sufferer Basadi and her children fulfill their potential. While I used to think that even with my basic undergraduate education I could help change the world, Botswana showed me I needed much more help (and education) than that.

Upon returning from Southern Africa, I found it very difficult to cope with all I had dealt with in Gaborone. It was not easy to return to my normal life knowing that there was so much preventable suffering taking place an ocean away. Luckily, instead of dwelling on what I had witnessed in Africa, I turned it into motivation, working extremely hard my final semesters at Pitt and using this new-found drive to commence the first of my many ambitions by getting a Master’s of Public Health Degree from The Dartmouth Institute for Clinical Practice and Health Policy. This educational experience has given me the knowledge not only to heal individuals (once I get my MD), but also to heal communities. However, the ultimate goal remains becoming an infectious disease doctor and ridding the world (and my hospice patients) of AIDS, an idea that would have remained dormant had it not been for one book back in high school that ended up changing everything.

This entry marks the first of an attempt to blog my way through medical school, both here and on my personal blog, Playing Doctor. I hope you’ll follow me as I embark on this journey to achieving my dream of becoming a physician.

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the author. The contents have not been reviewed or approved by the student’s medical school.

Timothy Dempsey is a medical student who blogs at Playing Doctor: The Journey From Med Student to MD.

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