Mom's not here to brag, so I'm going to shout it from the rooftops! My brilliant sister, Rachel, is going to med school! A few medical schools have accepted her so far, and I'll announce who she chooses in a few months.
Rachel will be an absolute weapon in the medical field! She is set on making a difference in the public health realm, and what a time to be in the medical field.
She sent her medical school statement to me a few months back to read for edits and ended up in a ball with tissues on the couch. She is such a thoughtful, creative woman. I think her personal statement is stunning, and I wanted to share. Enjoy!
Medical School Personal Statement
by Rachel Gallegos
Prompt: Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school.
Character limit: 5300 (including spaces)
“I wanted to leave this world standing up, but sitting down will have to do,” the man joked dryly as I held the lighter up to his cigarette in the courtyard outside the Durham VA Hospital Hospice Unit in North Carolina. One of the most important jobs I did as a Hospice volunteer was wheeling patients outside and sitting with them while they enjoyed their cherished morning smoke. Sometimes, patients would gift me their stories – what they did, whom they loved, how they wanted to leave this world. Often, they would fall in and out of sleep, their withered bodies teetering on the edge of consciousness. I sat and waited in solidarity, knowing that our existence was woven together, united by the reality of our impermanent bodies transforming on different timelines. Part of the human experience is navigating a journey through health, and passing through inevitable stages of aging, illness and suffering, and mortality. My definition of practicing good medicine is accompanying people on this journey.
My path towards medicine is shaped by my pursuit of grasping humanity more fully. Evolutionary Anthropology asks, “What makes us human?” The answer lies at the intersection of our biological and social structures; both our bipedal anatomy and our capacity for cooperation make us unique. In caring for humans, we also cannot separate the biological and social aspects of being. Physicians meet patients at this intersection, where our humanity is most tangible.
My mother lived for more than four years with stage IV lung cancer. During that time, Mom constantly walked the line between treating her physical illness and maintaining the mental and social aspects of her life that she found meaningful. Mom worked with her doctors to move from one gene therapy drug to the next, weighing each plan against what it could mean for her daily life. Could she dance at her eldest daughter’s wedding? Would she still be “herself”? In the end, Mom decided when her health was no longer compatible with her life. As a witness to her journey, I saw up close that health is quality of life.
My work at the Alaska Division of Public Health gives me a wider view of the same truth, as I investigate effects of social factors on population health. I am confronted with systemic challenges, like longstanding inequities and unequal resource distribution, that contribute to health disparities. In recent years in Alaska, for example, maternal mortality rates were more than four times higher among Alaska Native women than White women. Several rural regions have the highest prevalence of preterm birth. Low-income Alaskans have experienced worse mental health impacts due to COVID-19. These disparate outcomes reflect the inequities our society tolerates and our moral failure to protect all citizens equally.
Every data point is a person with a story, and I am driven by the desire for these stories to have a better ending. Every person has a right to health. Physicians have a unique privilege in caring for those who have fallen through every other safety net. In caring for humanity’s vulnerable, a physician must recognize their role as an equal partner in their patient’s health and their larger role as an advocate for healthcare. A physician can promote systemic change informed by both population-level science and patient experience. As a hospital epidemiologist recently told me, “For every problem I work on, I hold a patient in mind.” I am applying to medical school because I want to be a physician who practices this kind of humane and effective medicine, to heal the physiological manifestations of our social failings.
In the rural mountains of southern Mexico, I worked alongside community health workers called “acompañantes.” These “people who accompany,” whose role reflects their translated title, offer an example of meeting others where they are and walking with them through their journey in health. When a young pregnant woman needed emergency treatment, her acompañante, Higinia, found a truck to drive her two hours to the hospital in the nearest town, and slept on a spare bunk bed in the back room of the Partners in Health office until she could get a ride home the next day. Another acompañante, Arsia, walked over an hour down a dirt road to make biweekly home visits to a man with diabetes. After years of uncontrolled blood glucose, these home visits motivated him to take his medication, and he finally achieved a level of control. Accompaniment requires going beyond biomedical treatment to employ empathy and compassion, seek out stories, and understand the social context in which illness is experienced.