Medicine can be a calling, a lifelong dream for many doctors and physicians. Their path is set early and is an orderly procession from college to med school to internship to practice. But for others, medicine comes calling later in life, after time in another profession or avocation. Their career paths took surprising twists and turns along the way, and they say their medical work is the richer for it. Here’s a sampling.
Photo by Sarah Walor
NOW: Director, surgical and trauma ICU, VCU Health and associate professor of surgery, VCU School of Medicine
THEN: Actress and model
HER STORY: The Colombian native was named Miss Belleza Juvenil in 1994, then hosted a TV show, “Super Bien,” appeared in episodes of the TV comedy, “O Todos en la Cama,” and was in more than 50 commercials in her years as a model. She was 16 when she began medical school in Colombia while she was still working the television job. It came down to a choice of career paths, and she decided she could help more people through medicine. “There just isn’t enough time; you have to decide what you’re best at,” she says.
ON THE JOB: Acting and modeling skills and working as a professional communicator have served her well in working with patients. “Every little thing you learn every day becomes a tool,” she says.
NOW: Interim vice president for ambulatory clinics, VCU Medical Center, chief medical officer, Medical College of Virginia Physicians; governor of the American College of Physicians
HER STORY: Ellis was a voice major in college and a singer of considerable talent. It was challenging, and she enjoyed it but realized it was a career path that may not necessarily buy many groceries, and that she could continue singing in the shower. She was interested in voice pathology and then speech and language pathology. From there, she transitioned from clinical work to administrative duties and was director of speech pathology at a rehabilitation hospital, then entered medical school to work on her medical doctorate at VCU. She still fills in with her band back in Minnesota, still sings in the shower, and draws from her earlier training and skills in her current work in her clinical and administrative duties with VCU.
“There are many things that you gain from life experience that make you better.” —Lisa Ellis, former singer and now interim vice president for ambulatory clinics, VCU Medical Center
NOW: Chief medical officer, Sheltering Arms South, director of sports medicine and chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation, St. Francis Medical Center
THEN: Drill sergeant
HIS STORY: Silver was a chemical operations specialist in the service, then entered into drill sergeant training, which was twice as intense as boot camp, he says. He trained and passed new recruits and performed advanced infantry training at Fort Benning, Georgia, in the mid-1980s. Later, as a reservist, he had a dual major in chemistry and biology, and then went on to graduate school. He loved the science, but missed working with people. He applied to medical school and received a full scholarship. He left the military and became a doctor.
“That’s the way life kind of zigzags you through,” he says.
LIFE LESSONS: His military training paid off in college; it gave him focus, and he excelled. Drill sergeant skills surprisingly apply to life in general: “You can change gears quickly,” he says. “If something requires a quick action, it helps me adapt at changing gears.”
Photo by Sarah Walor
NOW: Pediatric neurologist, VCU Health, clinical associate
THEN: Circus clown
HIS STORY: A gymnast in high school and a college dropout, Jaffe was working as the “gym guy” for a program for emotionally disturbed children in Philadelphia when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to the city in 1974. A notice that the circus was holding clown auditions caught the eye of a friend, who talked Jaffe into going. The friend was a no-show, but Jaffe auditioned. They passed on him, but when the circus returned the following year, he had taught himself about clowning from a library book and this time was selected for the Ringling Clown College in Venice, Florida.
He was 20 and able to take on the rigors of clown college: tumbling, juggling, learning how to safely take pratfalls, working sunup to sundown.
“In medicine, you never run out challenges.” —David Jaffe, former clown who is now a pediatric neurologist
“You actually have to be very good to be funny and not get hurt,” he says.
It was three months of training, and out of a class of 50, Jaffe made the cut and was offered a job but didn’t take it, opting instead for a smaller traveling outfit. There was more freedom there, he says. “It was more of an adventure.”
He returned to the work with orphans for the winter, and realized he wanted more in life. That’s when he began to think of becoming a doctor.
Photo by Sarah Walor
NOW: Chief medical officer, HCA Virginia Chippenham & Johnston-Willis Hospitals
THEN: A bit of everything
HIS STORY: A self-described rotten student in high school, he surprised himself and enrolled in college and earned a math degree. But that was followed by five years when Menen sort of drifted through life. He drove a truck, worked at a hotel, performed quantitative analysis work in a basement cubicle and at one point packed up, sold everything and headed to Europe. He scratched around, scrubbing pots, tending bar, doing whatever to get by. He was a lifeguard for a time and lived in a Catholic Trappist monastery, too. Stateside, he went to work teaching math in an inner-city school in Los Angeles. When he applied for medical school and was accepted, life changed.
“Somewhere in my soul and my heart it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” —Michael Menen, chief medical officer, Bon Secours Johnston-Willis Hospital
NOW: Resident physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, VCU Health
THEN: Interior Designer
HIS STORY: Diskin earned a degree in interior design from Virginia Tech in 1996 and worked 8 to 10 years with Involve Architecture.
A neighbor asked if he wanted to ride along with a volunteer rescue squad in Chesterfield one day, and he ended up joining in 2001 and worked his way up in medicine from there. He went through the Medical College of Virginia paramedical program and spent a lot of time in emergency rooms, and that eventually led him to go to medical school when he was in his 30s, married and raising children.
SIMILARITIES: Interior design work and emergency medicine both are based in problem solving. An interior designer looks at a customer’s requirements for a space, then uses it to support what the customer is trying to do. In medicine, you take a patient’s history, look at what’s going on now and try to apply the same problem-solving techniques.
LATER IS BETTER: Diskin says his life experiences have helped him to better empathize with his patients: “I don’t know that I would have had the appreciation for what my patients experience if I haven’t had that experience myself.”