Young blood: What’s it like to become a physician at age 22?
GA-PCOM dean H. William Craver III, DO, hoods Serennah E. Harding, DO, on May 19. At 22, Dr. Harding is the youngest DO in the nation, according to AOA records. (Photo courtesy of GA-PCOM)
New graduate Serennah E. Harding, DO, is the youngest DO in the nation, according to AOA records. At 22, she is one of the youngest physicians in the United States, according to the Georgia Campus-Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Suwanee.
Homeschooled on an accelerated path alongside her siblings, Dr. Harding entered college full time at the tender age of 12. She graduated at 17 and enrolled in graduate school at GA-PCOM, then started medical school there a year later. She graduated last month and will soon begin a residency in internal medicine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Dr. Harding knew she wanted to be a physician at age 11. At the time, her 5-month-old brother had kidney problems that required him to undergo an extensive procedure, and she remembers spending time with his physician in the hospital.
“I got to see how this particular physician dealt with our family and became a counselor to us and a physician to us and fulfilled all of these roles that were so meaningful to our family,” Dr. Harding says. “And I thought, wow, I would love to be that person one day.”
Shortly after, she told her parents about her newfound dream.
“As an 11-year-old child, I probably didn’t even know the half of what I was getting myself into,” she says. “I say that jokingly, but the truth is, as an 11-year-old you don’t know what becoming a physician takes. I had wonderfully supportive parents who helped me carve out that road.”
The American Association of Medical Colleges says it can’t provide information on its youngest medical students, but a 2012 survey showed that only 2 out of every 1,000 students were in their teens when they started medical school.
Like Dr. Harding, other DOs and medical students who started early face unique challenges—and advantages—in the medical world. But Dr. Harding and many of her peers say their experience hasn’t diverged much from what their older counterparts face.
Attending college early posed certain logistical challenges such as being unable to drive to school, Dr. Harding says, but those constraints mostly disappeared when she came of age.
“By the time I started medical school at 18 years, I was a couple of years younger than my classmates, but at that point, I was basically able to do anything that they did,” she says. “So I didn’t see as much of a difference.”
Newly graduated 23-year-old Melina T. Keithly, DO, says not many people knew her age at the Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific in Pomona, Calif. Dr. Keithly, who also was homeschooled, says she avoided mentioning her age on purpose.
“You don’t want to be labeled as the young one,” she says. “Also, I wanted to be recognized for my work, not my age. I don’t think how old I am makes what I do any better than what somebody else is doing.”
“You can have the cognitive abilities, but it’s tough to have the emotional maturity and the ability to interact on a mature level with people.”
And while she notes that she wasn’t able to socialize with her peers in bars when she started medical school, younger students have an advantage over their “older” peers in terms of having more energy and being less tired of school, says Dr. Keithly, who starts her emergency medicine residency in July at Truman Medical Center-Hospital Hill in Kansas City, Mo. Women students in particular have good reasons to start early, she notes.
“As a female, going to medical school is a big decision because most women want to start a family,” says Dr. Keithly. “And I’m not feeling that pressure. I’m still so young. I can wait. I don’t have to feel like I need to have kids during medical school.”
Alissa P. Craft, DO, who graduated from the A.T. Still University-Kirksville (Mo.) College of Osteopathic Medicine at 22, also talks about pressure when she recalls her medical school years.
“You can focus on career and not feel pressured to have to create a balance in your life,” says Dr. Craft, now 43 and the vice chair of pediatrics and director of assessment at WesternU/COMP. “However, at some point you will want to seek that balance. It may be best to learn that earlier in life.”
It’s nice to get started on your life early, says David E. Biats, DO, who graduated from ATSU-KCOM at 23.
He finished high school one year early, then left college after two years to attend medical school.
One advantage of getting a head start? Early retirement is an option. But Dr. Biats says he has no goals to retire.
“I love working,” says Dr. Biats, now 42 and an obstetrician-gynecologist with Obstetrics and Gynecology of the Reserve, a group in northeastern Ohio. “I love what I do. I do a lot of deliveries, and I do robotic surgery. Work is very exciting for me.”
On the flip side, Dr. Craft says retiring early will give her a chance to partake in some activities she missed out on when she was younger, such as traveling.
“I would love to be able to retire at an age when I’m still physically able and active and financially settled enough that I can try backpacking around Europe, and other things like that,” she says.
Financial stability is also on the mind of Jocelyn V. Zee, DO, who graduated at 21 from the University of North Texas Health Science Center Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine in Fort Worth. She notes that starting medical school early leaves more time to pay off hefty student loans.
Social, emotional hurdles
Considering the financial and lifestyle advantages to attending medical school early, why don’t more people do it? Many young adults need more time to mature before taking on such a challenging endeavor, says Jed G. Magen, DO, an associate professor and chair of the department of psychiatry at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in East Lansing.
“Medicine is highly complex,” he says. “You can have the cognitive abilities, but it’s tough to have the emotional maturity and the ability to interact on a mature level with people, and that makes it very difficult.”
James Horst, DO, a psychiatrist in private practice in Miami who has worked with gifted adolescents, says the physicians he’s treated who attended medical school early had social anxiety, which didn’t surprise him.
“Medical school is challenging on many different levels,” he says, “And one of the challenging pieces of it is the emotional part and being able to work as a team, which is important in health care. So younger students have a hard time connecting with their medical school classmates, and they really do get marginalized.”
Dr. Zee, now a 26-year-old hospitalist with JPS Health Network in Fort Worth, says she didn’t have trouble connecting with her classmates in her college and medical school years.
“I had a lot of fun in college, especially because I was so involved with student government and arranging picnics and science fairs and activities like that,” she says. “Med school is med school, everybody’s working and studying really hard. I don’t think I missed out there. I was able to go on a medical mission trip and was involved in student organizations, and I was the class historian as well.”
But Dr. Zee says one downside she has noticed is that as an attending physician, she’s often younger than her residents, which makes her worry that they won’t take her seriously.
“With some of the residents who do know how old I am, I kind of wonder, ‘Are they really going to listen to me?’ ” she says. “They’re older than I am, but I’ve still been doing this for longer than they have.”
“I was 22, I hadn’t even thought about having kids, and I had to tell people that their children were dying.”
Young students who are particularly sensitive or introverted may struggle socially, Dr. Biats says, but he personally didn’t have any problems.
“I was the youngest of four boys in my family, so I was always used to being younger than everybody I was around,” he says. “I don’t think it was that big of a deal to me.”
Still, Dr. Biats says he avoided bringing up his age when he was with other students, and Dr. Zee says she tries not to share her age with her residents.
Beyond their peers, young medical students and physicians spend a lot of time with another major group—their patients.
Dr. Horst says young students often lack the emotional maturity to properly relate to patients. His younger classmates struggled during their clinical years, he says.
“When they tried to truly apply what was in a book to a patient, there was this disconnect and frustration because they were not able to see the forest for the trees and take the knowledge that they learned from a book and apply it to general health care,” he says.
Dr. Biats says he didn’t have this problem, and his age didn’t impact his interactions with patients.
“Some of the patients would comment on my age every once in a while, and we’d laugh about it,” he says. “But I’m an ordinary type of person so people think of me more like a friend or a neighbor. It’s all in the way you come across to people.”
As a pediatrician, Dr. Craft says caring for children and working with their parents was difficult for her.
“Being a good physician is not really about being intelligent as much as it is about being aware of people and being able to connect with individuals with a variety of different backgrounds and experiences,” she says. “When you are young, most of the time you just haven’t lived enough life to have the ability to make all of those connections.
“I was 22, I hadn’t even thought about having kids, and I had to tell people that their children were dying. They asked me questions like ‘What would you do if you were in this circumstance?’ I would never recommend that somebody answer that question because you’re never in that circumstance exactly, but I couldn’t fathom what to tell somebody about the possibility of dealing with a loss like that.”
Dr. Horst notes that the young physicians he knows opted to go into research because they never became fully comfortable with treating patients and ultimately preferred academics. He recommends that younger medical students spend more time in school to give themselves more time to develop emotionally.
“It’s something we struggle with in our field,” he says. “How do you manage expectations of these incredibly bright individuals and match them up with a career path? For a lot of these superbright individuals, a better approach would be to look at six-year programs where students combine a PhD or even an MBA with their DO degree so that it allows them to really apply their IQ over a greater scope and gives them time to mature.”
Would you do it over again?
Dr. Craft says she discourages others from following her path and attending medical school young.
“You want to have had an opportunity to do other things with your life,” she says. “Because once you start medical school, you no longer are a ‘student.’ You don’t have summers off, you don’t have free time—you have a career. And when you start a career like medicine, you can’t later on say, ‘Well, now I want to take my three months and travel Europe with my backpack,’ quite as easily.”
Dr. Biats says he’s happy with the schooling decisions he made and he would do it over again, but when it comes to suggesting an accelerated path to others, it depends on personality.
“Everybody’s different and it’s all according to your circumstances,” he says “But if you’re compelled to be there early and you have the drive, then I think it’s a great thing.”
Older DOs clear hurdles to achieve dreams
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some osteopathic physicians didn’t start their training until they were in their 50s or 60s. Read about the experiences of older DOs.
Dr. Biats also notes that his oldest son took college classes while in high school, and his middle son plans to have a year’s worth of college done by the time he finishes high school.
Dr. Harding similarly says she would encourage a particular type of person to attend medical school early.
“I would recommend it to those young people who know that they really want something like this,” she says. “To go into something like medicine, especially at a young age, you have to have the motivation and the desire to serve people, and be doing it for the right reasons.”
Medical training is long and difficult, Dr. Harding says, and for these reasons, she’s happy she started early and would do it over again.
“Here I am at age 22, and I’m getting to start this career of being a medical doctor,” she says. “I am so thankful to be where I am right now at my age, so I can basically get a head start on my life.”
Update: This article has been edited to fix a typo in the headline.