Hugh Thompson on Becoming a Doctor during COVID-19

Hugh on answering the call to step into the field of medicine.

Entering into the field of medicine is a noble act, which only very few are cut out for. Hugh Thompson, however, is just one of those people that was born to practice medicine. Having grown up visiting and engaging with doctors, Hugh knew that he wanted to impact the world in the same way that medicine had impacted his life- for the better. Hugh’s story is not one without its challenges, but one that is inspiring because of its challenges. If you have ever considered becoming a medical professional, this article is definitely for you. If you are interested in the field of medicine and healthcare in America, this article is also for you. Hmm… if you have ever seen a doctor, this article is just for you.


Screen Shot 2020-10-27 at 3.16.32 PMHugh, tell us a little bit about yourself!

Hello everyone! First of all, I want to say that I am truly honored and humbled that you would ask me of all people to chat!

In terms of a little bit about me: I graduated from Wake Forest University in 2017. After graduating, I moved back home to central New Jersey for 3 years to build up my resume and save up a little bit of money before going to medical school. During those 3 years, I volunteered as an EMT in my hometown as well as worked as a scribe in the Saint Barnabas Emergency Department, ultimately becoming the ‘lead scribe’ for the final 2 years of my time there. I was offered an acceptance at New York Medical College in Westchester County, New York in the Spring of 2019 with a deferment – meaning that instead of starting in the fall, I would start in the fall of 2020. And here we are!

What made you decide to go to medical school?Screen Shot 2020-10-27 at 4.37.24 PM

I can’t say there was one of those “ah-hah” moments that made me decide to want to pursue a career in medicine. For as long as I can remember, having the opportunity to care for others has been something I have wanted to make my life about. I was born with a genetic condition that meant I was around medicine quite a bit as a child, and what child wants to be in hospitals or at doctors offices? One of the moments that has stuck with me that represented the power that medicine can have on an individual arose from one of those trips to the hospital. 

Preface: I am incredibly lucky to have parents who stopped at nothing in their pursuit of ensuring that I received care from world-class practitioners of all sorts, and for this I will forever be grateful. After a variety of hospital trips, tests and the like, my mother ultimately settled on following up with a physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. We had only been there a couple of times and I was probably only in 5th or 6th grade when I was visited by another practitioner during my regular visit. I was- and still am- a huge baseball fan, and I must have had a copy of Sports Illustrated with me, because the practitioner noticed and told me that he couldn’t wait to see me playing third base for the Phillies when I got older.

Now, my condition has never been life threatening or even significantly debilitating, but it does ensure that playing sports at more than a recreational level is not really possible for me- and this is something that that practitioner would have known. Nonetheless, the fact that someone like that took the time to express interest in me and in doing so, communicate a genuine and profound kind of empathy was an incredible confidence boost as well as an eye opener for me. I am sure that the practitioner doesn’t realize the kind of impact such a small statement made, as there was no way for him to have known that the child he engaged in was at the time having self confidence issues. I am less sure whether that practitioner was consciously aware that his positivity and empathy made more of a difference in my care than any medicine could have. Either way, having had the time to reflect on my experiences as a patient including moments like these, I have come to realize that it is positivity, a smile, even just a shared interest with a patient that can change a persons day, week, or life. By definition, for a patient to be a patient, something likely has gone wrong and the patient has made the decision to entrust their vulnerability to said physician. This trust, this faith in the physician’s ability, this hope that is inextricably linked to the patient-provider relationship is a privilege, and personally I can think of no higher honor than having the opportunity to improve the lives of others through medicine. That is all just a long way of saying that being able to possibly impact someone in a similar manner as I was has been a dream of mine for quite a while. 

Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted how you view medicine and the healthcare industry at all?

Screen Shot 2020-10-27 at 4.38.39 PMI was able to witness the work that emergency providers put in during the height of the pandemic in our area firsthand and it was truly inspiring. To watch providers of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs band together to fight for our communities made me wish I was through medical school and able to fight with them. From my viewpoint, Saint Barnabas never reached the depths that many hospitals in New York City experienced, but we were pretty overrun and hard hit nonetheless. Single use masks were being rationed and reused several times over. The hospital was out of hospital beds, almost out of ventilators, and short on capable providers. A lot of the providers weren’t allowed to return to their homes while they were in the middle of the pandemic, at the risk of infecting their loved ones. And yet, everyone came to work day in and day out, ready to fight with and for every single patient that came through the doors. I can honestly say that being able to witness the compassion, resilience, and strength of the providers at Saint Barnabas Medical Center was one of the most inspiring ‘moments’ in all of my living memory. So while the pandemic has been saddening on many levels, it has reinforced my faith in and desire to be a part of the medical community.

Is there a lot of discussion in the classroom about the pandemic and, if so, what is the conversation about?

Honestly, there has not been quite as much discussion in our academic classes regarding the pandemic so far. However, I have no doubt that once I transition into our classes regarding disease processes, the SARS-CoV-2 virus will get plenty of airtime in our lectures. 

Laboratory_art_print_cimestry__laboratory__vintage_science__flower_print__wall_art__vintage_print_on-removebg-previewI will say that beyond the classroom, the pandemic has definitely been a significant talking point. The school itself seems to have made concerted efforts to address how the pandemic and all of its side effects (isolation, Zoom classes, etc.) has affected us as students. Specifically, my school has what is called the “Resiliency Curriculum Committee” which existed even before the pandemic as a means for training the medical students in healthy emotional and psychological choices. I obviously cannot speak to what the topics covered in prior years Resiliency Curriculum were, but the discussions during the small group sessions this year have had a distinct COVID-19 pandemic flavor, which I think is extremely important. The pandemic is the elephant in the room here: a year ago, it would have been absurd to think that students would be attending lectures given by professors sitting in their home offices. To that end, the fact that the school wants to address how this is affecting its students and try to guide students through such a stressful time is something I appreciate. 

What is one thing that you wish you knew before you committed to going to medical school?

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Hugh along with his co-workers

I can’t say there is a particular piece of advice that would have changed how I did things. The one thing I find myself wishing for was an advisor – none of my family are involved in medicine of any kind, so at times I did feel as if I was flying in the dark in terms of building my resume for medical school. I never knew what types of jobs to apply to, when to take what classes or tests, how to make myself a better applicant, etc. The pre-health advisory system at my undergraduate college was great – they were more than happy to provide specific answers to many of my bigger questions, but because they were dealing with literally hundreds of students, there was really no way to go to them with little questions or concerns. I ended up relying on the two or three of my friends that were also planning to go to medical school for guidance, and I can honestly say that I would not be where I am today without their patience and advice so I am lucky and grateful to have them around (shoutout Ryan and Mike!).

What excites you most about medicine in general?

Screen Shot 2020-10-27 at 4.40.18 PMHmm, thats a great question. At the risk of sounding like a nerd, I am super excited about a lot of the science behind medicine. It is truly amazing how ‘well designed’ and finely tuned the human body is. And then when things go wrong, the creativity that scientists and physicians have implemented in coming up with solutions and treatments is incredible. Being able to spend the rest of my life learning about all of this and implementing it to help patients is super exciting. 

That being said, the reason I wanted to go into medicine is for the people. I love people and their stories, and medicine provides a great way to simultaneously build relationships with a huge range of people, while also having the chance to positively impact the lives of those people. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur when it comes to being able to ‘fix’ everyone’s medical issues. I realize that often, physicians do not have the answers, can’t solve the problem, or have to be the bearer of bad news. But where I feel that physicians make an impact is in how they are able to handle these types of moments. I recently finished reading both Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, and one of the sentiments that really stuck with me from those books was the importance of physicians in speaking candidly with their patients, no matter how uncomfortable it may be at the time. Being able to help guide patients through these tough moments is just one of the ways that I hope to be able to make an impact down the road, and it is these types of moments that I am excited to play a role in one day. Though admittedly, I could go on and on about everything I am excited about with regards to becoming a physician… 

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone interested in going to medical school?

Don’t let anything stop you. If you know that you want to be a physician, you can become a physician. 

So many people get discouraged by the amount of work that the application process takes: the pre-requisite classes during undergraduate years, studying/taking the MCAT, school application essays or fees, or any of the other barriers. If you want it bad enough, none of that matters. Hard work and passion for the field of medicine are the single two most important factors in getting into medical school, because they will always help you overcome the barriers that are put in place. 

One last thing on this question: one of the best physicians I have had the pleasure of working with applied to medical school 3 times and had started podiatry school before he was ultimately accepted to medical school. 

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