Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Alan Wang (CAS ’14) on his Experiences as a Medical Student During the COVID Pandemic

Alan WangWhat was your experience as an NYU student? 

I loved my experience as an NYU student. I was a college student not only in one of the best cities in the world, but also at one of the best universities. I’m originally from NYC, so I was super close to home. I could easily visit after class and on weekends. Plus, being in NYC, I had endless opportunities at my doorstep. 

I remember going to the Skirball Center for my general chemistry lectures with 700+ other students. I had attended a small high school in Chelsea, so I was initially intimidated by the size of the class. But I quickly made pre-med friends and found out that Professor John Halpin, my gen chem instructor, was an amazing lecturer. He was very thorough and made difficult concepts easy to understand. That class quickly became one of my favorites and ultimately made me decide to become a chemistry major. It’s crazy to think now how my medical education started and how far I have come since then.

At one of my residency interviews, the faculty interviewer had also been a student of Professor Halpin, and we were able to reminisce about our experiences as pre-meds at NYU. The long days in organic chemistry and physical chemistry labs were not fun, neither were the sleepless nights writing up those lab reports. My roommates would be out partying on a Friday night, while I would be in my dorm room studying. But I’m sure all the pre-meds out there can relate to this kind of lifestyle. I’m definitely grateful for my NYU experience and education, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Alan Wang: his story continues

Alan Wang with Sri Lanka Trip Group
Alan Wang with Sri Lanka Trip Group

You went on an NYU OP service trip working in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka. What was that like?

Touch of Harmony was one of my most rewarding NYU experiences. Valerie Cabal (Director of Alumni Relations for NYU Tandon) organized and led this trip with Jamiyah Singapore, a missionary society that promotes education, knowledge and welfare. It was a two-week, intercollegiate program attended by eight students from universities in New York and Singapore. We fundraised for items and donated them to orphanages and refugee camps in Sri Lanka, including sunglasses, sunblock lotions, t-shirts and backpacks. At that time, Sri Lanka had just come out of a civil war two years earlier, so the conditions there were poor.

We set up a library at the Chen Su Lan Education Center and taught children English and math. We faced linguistic and cultural barriers, but we drew pictures to communicate. These students wanted to become doctors and pilots, so we connected through our common and diverse aspirations. Even in this challenging setting, they had a smile on their faces all the time, an expression that represents to me what it truly means to be caring and inviting. 

From this experience, I acquired a new way of communicating, which was to go beyond language, culture and life circumstances in order to connect with people. This is very important for a physician. A patient can present to the clinic speaking a different language and coming from a diverse background. It’s crucial to appreciate their differences and to prioritize managing their medical conditions.

We also climbed Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) on the night of a full moon. We saw the Buddhist temple at the summit, 7,359 feet above, and then watched the sunrise. This whole experience was absolutely surreal. 

Sri Pada Summit
Sri Pada Summit

Sri Pada Summit
Sri Pada Summit

Did you have any other memorable NYU experiences outside of the classroom?

I served as the Chair of Recruitment for NYU’s chapter of Phi Delta Epsilon, a well-recognized professional medical fraternity comprised of students with a common interest in pursuing medicine. With this leadership role, I organized recruitment week events twice a year and served as a peer mentor to pre-med students during their undergraduate career and medical school application process. I facilitated professional workshops, including CV and cover letter writing as well as interviewing skills. 

This community definitely enriched my NYU experience, and many of us still stay in touch. We’re all in different specialties, and it’s amazing to see how we are thriving at different stages of our lives and medical education. I’m thankful to have been able to establish lifelong friendships through Phi Delta Epsilon and become a part of this growing network of physicians.

Congratulations on matching to a surgical residency. Where will you be working and in what specialty?

I recently matched into general surgery at Christiana Care, the number-one ranked hospital in Delaware. I’m currently interested in pursuing a fellowship after my five-year residency, either in vascular surgery, surgical oncology, or plastic surgery. I hope to figure out during my time in residency which subspecialty would be the best fit for me. 

Christiana Care is the largest health care system in the state of Delaware with over 1200+ beds and the only Level I trauma center between Philadelphia and Baltimore. It’s an amazing place to train. It’s where President Joe Biden received his COVID vaccines! I rotated at the hospital throughout medical school, and I’m excited to return to a very familiar place for residency!

Alan Wang on Match Day
Match Day

When and why did you decide to pursue a career in medicine?  

I’ve always wanted to become a doctor since a very young age. I loved the sciences in middle school and high school—anything that required me to ask questions, conduct experiments, and draw conclusions. 

There was one experience in particular that really solidified my decision to go into medicine. After college, I worked as a pulmonary function testing technician at Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital, where I performed studies to help diagnose patients with chronic lung conditions, such as asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). I once had a patient who spoke Spanish and presented with a whispering voice and blinking eyes (signs of a neurological condition that I wasn’t aware of at the time). He was one of my more difficult patients because my Spanish was rudimentary, and he barely had the energy to complete the study. When I ran his spirometry (a breathing exercise basically to determine the strength of his lungs), I saw flow volume loops (recordings of his breathing cycles) that I had never seen before. I checked for errors in machine calibration and for any leaks in the mouthpiece, but none was found. 

Later, I found out from his pulmonologist that the unusual flow volume loops were actually due to an underlying neurological condition called dystonia. I learned then that increased efforts of a patient with this medical condition tend to worsen any volitional muscular contractions causing spasms. It was such an eye-opening experience for me because I really wanted to help that patient, but my limited medical knowledge prevented me from caring for him completely. It was a moment that really solidified my interest in going to medical school.

Alan Wang in White Coat

What have been your experiences as a med student during the COVID pandemic?

It’s been a really tough year to say the least. I’m sure that’s the case for everyone. During my third year, I got pulled out of my clinical rotations and had to complete them online. It was so different. My board exams, which were each eight hours long and required for medical licensure, were also cancelled at the last minute. It was stressful trying to reschedule. 

Then, during my fourth year, I attended my residency interviews virtually. It was scary to think that I could end up at any program where I had never been before. Fortunately, I matched at a place with which I’m very familiar. Overall, I’m not complaining. I did save money from airfare and accommodations, which would be necessary for in-person interviews.

I guess physicians are supposed to adapt to change and excel in times of stress, and this pandemic has definitely taught me those.

Do you have any advice you can share with NYU students interested in pursuing a career in medicine?

Find a mentor early on. Remember those who guided you to where you’re now. Ask for help when you’re stuck. Own up to your mistakes and learn from them. Always call your loved ones (even though you have hundreds of flash cards to go through) because they’re always thinking about you. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture when things get hard. Medicine is truly a rewarding field, so enjoy the process while you’re at it.

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