Fort Pierce students persevered on the way to graduation
May 19, 2021
As if medical school isn’t formidable enough, the M.D. Class of 2021’s clinical training years coincided with a worldwide pandemic. And while all medical students faced unique difficulties, Fort Pierce Regional Campus Dean Juliette Lomax-Homier had particular reasons to be pleased with graduates from her campus who participated in Sunday’s commencement ceremony.
“I think their respective challenges shaped them to really want this medical degree and to be the best that they could, despite all the background and all the things that had happened to them,” she said. “They tried their best to be positive at all times. Sometimes, you would see just a glimmer of sadness, but it didn’t last long, and for many it could have.”
Gabriella Glassman’s path to becoming a doctor at the Universidad Central del Caribe in Puerto Rico was disrupted in September 2017 when Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
Resuming medical school in Puerto Rico after the storm wasn’t easy.
“I had a generator from my apartment and it was only powered a couple hours a day,” said Glassman. “I ended up living with a friend’s family and life in Puerto Rico at the time was very difficult because everybody was dealing with their own problems without power.”
Hospitals cancelled all elective surgeries and began sending medical students home. Glassman returned to Jacksonville, where her father was experiencing health problems, and applied to transfer to FSU.
“As a practicing physician, I saw what hurricanes did to families’ lives and their homes and it just upended them completely,” said Lomax-Homier. “Here you have this young woman who was offshore in Puerto Rico. It’s the worst storm ever, decimating the country; and of course, we’re going to say yes. Let’s just bring her in and help her get through this as a third-year student. I’ve said to her jokingly that everything that happened to her was almost divine intervention because it set her pathway.”
Initially joining the Class of 2020, Glassman took a year off to do research, returning to the Fort Pierce campus with the Class of 2021.
“I definitely didn’t give up on my dream to be a doctor. If I didn't get into FSU, then I was going to go back to Puerto Rico and just kind of accept that it was a year that had gone by, in a way,” said Glassman. “I know that as medical students, too, we tend to worry about every little detail, and it was difficult not knowing where I was going to end up. It's easy to say it now, ‘Everything's going to be OK.’”
Her motivation to continue came from her father, a plastic surgeon who she calls her mentor.
“When I was in college, I went on a medical mission trip with my dad and I basically just fell in love with surgery and helping change people's lives by giving back to those who are underserved,” said Glassman, who has been on numerous medical mission trips, many of them to help perform cleft palate surgeries on children. “He’s always emphasized the importance of giving back to others and how it's a privilege to operate on other people. They're putting their lives in your hands and it's important to respect that and to offer your services to those who don't necessarily have the means to have those surgeries.”
Classmate Allan Joseph shares Glassman’s sentiments.
“It’s been a long journey,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot and a lot about myself along the way. I’m just glad that I was actually able to overcome my obstacles and now looking back, I realize I’m a much stronger person and I don’t take anything for granted.”
Joseph graduated from FSU with a bachelor’s in exercise science in 2013. He wanted to be a doctor but questioned his future.
“Medical school was something that seemed very far-fetched for me when I originally graduated,” he said. “I didn’t really graduate with the average GPA you’d see for an incoming medical student. So, at that time, I kind of pushed the dreams of going to medical school away and I ended up moving back home, which was Boynton Beach, Florida."
While working odd jobs, overnight shifts, and trying to figure out his next steps, Joseph experienced a family tragedy that reignited his desire to become a physician.
“Unfortunately, my mother ended up getting breast cancer in 2014 and at that point, that’s when I kind of questioned what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “My mom passed away in 2015, but I kind of held on to that dream of becoming a doctor when she passed away. I said, ‘I don’t know how long this is going to take, but I’m going to remain steadfast and continue forward.’ I ended up going back to school and retaking some courses that I struggled in during undergrad.”
That included organic chemistry, physics, and other med school prerequisites.
“I think Allan really had a reckoning in terms of who he could be and what it was going to take to change his mind,” said Lomax-Homier.
He later got a master’s degree in biomedical sciences from Florida Atlantic University and was accepted to the FSU College of Medicine.
“That initial summer when you're in anatomy and you're just learning a lot of new things and it's all coming at you super-fast, they say it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant,” he said. “I really kind of second-guessed myself, like, ‘Am I really supposed to be here?’ And at that time, what I did was remember how hard I worked to get to medical school.”
Like Joseph, Michael Morgan was not only the first in his family to attend medical school, but also a first-generation college student.
His nontraditional path to medical school included a number of obstacles. Even then, he faced hardships that contributed to him repeating his first year of the M.D. program.
Yet he sought to inspire classmates.
“Michael was the guy with a smile on his face every day when we came to our lecture series,” said Lomax-Homier. “Every week, he wanted to celebrate something, whether it was someone’s birthday or whatever else. He was always buying cakes for the birthday people and making sure we were jovial and familial with each other. That was his role. He was the class cheerleader. And when you examine his background, it’s amazing.”
“[Repeating the first year] was a real tough decision for me and a tough path to have to choose. But I’m humbled that this school allowed me and helped me to continue on in my journey,” said Morgan, who started in 2015 in the College of Medicine’s master’s program in Biomedical Sciences-Bridge to Clinical Medicine.
Morgan originally wanted to be a veterinarian and obtained an associate degree before transferring to FSU. After joining FSU’s Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students, where he became vice president, Morgan made it his goal to attend medical school.
“I was always faced with a lot of hardships in my life, so I developed what I’d call a thick skin,” he said. “Once I set my mind to an idea, that’s what I’m going to do, and nothing is really going to stop me from doing that.
“I thought about not continuing several times, but I had people by my side and I had their hands on my shoulders pushing me to continue on this journey that I had originally started. Honestly, I don’t see myself doing anything other than medicine.”
Lomax-Homier says students like Joseph and Morgan are often inspiring to their classmates.
“Sometimes people are embarrassed when they have backgrounds that are not sort of the norm, or the standard medical school student; and it takes a minute for people to adjust because when you come from a background where you’re the first generation, there’s no one in your family that’s a doctor that you can go to for advice,” she said.
“Then you come and join a class full of people who have aunts and uncles that are physicians, so they’ve been having these conversations at the Thanksgiving dinner table, and sometimes they can feel like they don’t fit and they suffer from that imposter syndrome, like, ‘I’m really not supposed to be here but I am and maybe I’ll be discovered if I talk too much.’ But none of these guys were like that. They were willing to share their stories. Sometimes it was saddening to them and I think I would say that about Mike; but they had to achieve anyway.”
Kyara Marquez juggled her responsibilities as a third- and fourth-year medical student while grappling with emotional turmoil and the loss of loved ones to COVID-19.
“It was hard. I'm very family-oriented and I'm very big on being with my family, spending time with them and talking to them.” said Marquez. “I actually lost three family members throughout that time. Having to learn how to balance the emotions of losing somebody, being scared that my own parents are in the field and are still going to work every day, and then also having to worry about myself and my patients and my education and how I’m going to be the best version of myself in the future if I can't physically be in the hospital system…It was just like a lot of emotions that were going on.”
Marquez’s father works as an internist while her mother is a nurse. During the pandemic, Marquez lost two uncles as well as a member of her extended family.
“Honestly, I admired [my uncles], they were both physicians. One was a cardiologist and one was an internist like my dad,” she said. “They knew that this is what we signed up for as physicians. We make a promise and a vow to put our patients first and we know that it’s going to be hard and we know that circumstances and situations are going to come up where it’s going to be difficult and we’re going to have to make tough decisions, but this is the profession we chose. We’re the frontrunners. And it made me proud; proud of them and proud to be graduating into this profession.”
Marquez was selected as one of two recipients of the College of Medicine’s Mission Award, given to a student who embodies the college’s mission of responding to community needs, especially through service to elder, rural, minority and underserved populations.
Growing up seeing her dad’s experiences as a physician inspired Marquez to pursue medicine.
“Something that I love is that my dad has been with his patients for 20-plus years. He knows that his patient’s grandchild dressed up as Elsa for her second birthday, and I love that,” she said. “He comes home every day telling stories about his patients and these are people that have become family to him. I think that's something very special that medicine has that a lot of fields don't have, and that's what draws me to the field the most.
“Anybody who knows me has seen the video that I recorded when I opened up the [Match Day] email and we were all crying and my dad just couldn't let go of me,” she said. “He never cries. He never showed his emotions in front of us, and he was practically sobbing. So was my mom. It was happy tears. We've been through a lot all of these years and it was just nice to know that I'll be here.”
Glassman’s next stop is the plastic surgery residency program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. She still stays in touch with some classmates from Puerto Rico, many of whom are also beginning residencies.
“Most of the students that were in my school were from Puerto Rico so, for them, leaving wasn't really an option,” she said. “They all really felt like their families were there and they're all going through this situation together, whereas my family was having our own personal problems. So, they stayed and they had a difficult third year, that was for sure...
“I don't regret going there and I don't regret transferring. I think it's weird how life kind of throws you into these situations, but I've been very grateful for all of them, and the journey.”
Joseph, his wife and two young sons are Atlanta-bound so he can begin his internal medicine residency at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
“I used to always second guess myself,” he said. “But before I knew it, I just started taking very small baby steps and as I was taking those baby steps, I just start to figure out answers on how to be successful.”
For Joseph, the memory of his mother and the experiences that guided him to medical school remain at the forefront of his approach to caring for patients.
“I saw patients along the way that kind of looked like my mother and I just realized it’s really important for me to never forget why I want to do this, because a lot of times as we're in medicine, we kind of think about ourselves and what we want to do professionally,” he said. “And I always say, I don't want to forget about the patients and I always try to put them first. So, now I'm glad to be here at this point.”
Morgan will first do a preliminary medicine year of residency at HCA Healthcare/USF Health at Citrus Memorial Hospital. He’ll then enter the physical medicine and rehabilitation residency program at the University of Miami-Jackson Health System.
“My whole entire family is thrilled that I’m coming back to Miami to be home. I’ve been away for so long,” said Morgan. “My mom is beyond happy and beyond prideful that her only son is actually going into medicine and finally becoming a doctor.”
Marquez also will be returning home, matching into obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Miami-Jackson Health System.
Lomax-Homier has no doubt that the Class of 2021 will go on to do well and live the college’s mission.
“Graduation proves that it was all worth it,” said Lomax-Homier. “There are many more that had family members affected by COVID, or lost family members to other disease. I can’t tell you how much this class has been through, it’s really a lot.
“When you’ve had that kind of hardship in your life, you’re willing to meet patients halfway when you see that they’re having a hard time because you’re going to remember your own and be empathetic and step into their shoes. I think most of them are going to be exceptionally grateful that despite everything, they had enough resilience to put one foot in front of another and continue on the pathway. It just tells me that they’re resilient people and likely are going to be excellent doctors because of that.”