Hero Next Door: Early interest in quality of life inspired med student
Michael J. Erickson, OMS III (left), stands with Sister Margaret, a nurse from the Nairobi, Kenya, health clinic where he volunteered in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Erickson)
This article is part of a series, The Hero Next Door, on osteopathic physicians and medical students who are quietly transforming health care in their communities and beyond.
“I’ve been shot,” the man said.
It was 2:30 a.m., and Michael J. Erickson was wheeling a patient to her car during his volunteer shift at an emergency room in Tempe, Ariz.
Erickson, who was an undergrad at the time, eased the man into the wheelchair and rushed him into the ER. Physicians did what they could, but he quickly passed away from the gunshot wound.
After finishing his shift at 4:30 a.m., Erickson started his workday with the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s office less than two hours later. The first case that day was the gunshot victim from the ER. Erickson accompanied medical examiners back to the hospital, where they began their investigation into the man’s death.
“Mike’s goal is not merely curing disease but enhancing the quality of life. That’s why he chose osteopathic medicine. It’s been his goal since I’ve known him.”
At the time, Erickson also volunteered with a community response team in a nearby city, where he provided grieving families with information on planning final arrangements. He learned that the man from the parking lot had lived there, and he worked with his family.
“Three different branches of my life met,” says Erickson, now a third-year student at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City (TouroCOM). “My volunteer work at an ER crossed with my job at the medical examiner’s office and my community response work in a completely different city. I saw this man alive, I was there when he passed away, and we were able to help his family after his death.”
Such a coincidence could only happen to a student who was prolifically involved in activities and volunteer work. Erickson continued his commitment to community service as a medical student at TouroCOM. It’s one of the reasons he was recently awarded National Student DO of the Year by the Council of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents and Student of the Year by TouroCOM.
“Mike always gives 100%,” says Barbara A. Capozzi, DO, an associate professor of family medicine at TouroCOM. “It’s very rare that you find someone like that. Students always say, ‘I need to study, I’m so stressed, I have boards.’ Mike’s not like that. Mike’s about the patient—the person who’s in need, the person who is suffering. He’s the first one there to give of himself. He follows through.”
Outside school, Erickson recovers human brain specimens for research organizations, participates in health fairs, volunteers at a child welfare agency in Harlem and speaks to middle-school students about nutrition and diet. Erickson is also involved in extracurricular research on cerebral edema.
When asked how he finds time to do all these things while in medical school, Erickson says he is propelled by a desire to make a difference.
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“Sometimes you go with a little less sleep, or no sleep, but the change and progress you see outweigh your exhaustion,” he says. “That’s what really keeps me going. And I love being around people who are passionate and who really want to create change and have a positive outlook.”
Quality of life
Erickson has always been ultraproductive, says Rodney Newman, a medicolegal death investigator who worked with him at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s office.
“Mike wasn’t an average 18-year-old,” Newman says. “We’re talking about an 18-year-old who worked with his church, went to school full time and worked with us. He probably maintained about five different jobs, along with school and friends, all at the same time. But he seemed to do it with ease. ‘Mike, when do you sleep?’ I asked him once. He said, ‘Rodney, right now I have to go full-speed ahead.’ “
Newman suspects Erickson’s drive may in part be born from his familial responsibilities. Erickson was raised by his grandparents and spent several years as a teenager taking care of them as their health declined. The experience inspired him to become a physician, Erickson says. He felt doctors weren’t concerned with making his grandfather comfortable throughout his illness.
“At the time, I felt that the doctors’ outlook was very black or white,” he says. “They seemed to think, ‘You’re going to die from this soon, and there’s really nothing we can do.’ That was the reality. But what about, ‘Where can we go from here? What’s the quality of life?’
“I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to be a physician who doesn’t seem invested in his patients.’ “
Erickson’s interest in maximizing patient satisfaction influenced his decision to pursue osteopathic medicine, says Scott Coahran, who taught Erickson during a high school summer program and again in college.
“Mike’s goal is not merely curing disease but enhancing the quality of life,” says Coahran, now a professor of psychology and sociology at Merced College in Los Banos, Calif. “That’s why he chose osteopathic medicine. It’s been his goal since I’ve known him, since he was a freshman in high school.”
In 2012, after his first year of medical school, Erickson’s passion for quality-of-life-focused medicine deepened when he spent three weeks in a health clinic in Nairobi, Kenya, on a solo medical mission. One day at the clinic, a patient came in with a brucellosis infection from bad milk. Erickson noticed that she seemed upset. She said hip pain was preventing her from enjoying intimacy with her husband.
“It’s very interesting to see the silver lining that flows through all of us. People are amazing. We fight to create and find beauty.”
“This was the first opportunity I saw to show the power and beauty of osteopathic manipulative medicine,” Erickson says. “I said, ‘Doc, do you mind if I try something?’ I evaluated the patient and found she had a classic iliopsoas syndrome, and I did some osteopathic manipulative treatment.”
The treatment worked so well that the patient came back the next day to personally thank Erickson and her physician.
The story is an example of how medicine is not all about eradicating illness, Erickson says—it’s sometimes just about making a patient feel better.
“This patient was sick with brucellosis infection, but her personal life was more important to her,” he says. “Her mood drastically changed once we addressed the problem. Rather than a win-loss column, it was about improving quality of life.”
The positivity his patients expressed in the face of poverty and dire illness was a big takeaway from the trip, Erickson says.
“I loved working with the patients,” he says. “I talked to an 8-year-old boy who has malaria and HIV, yet he has the brightest outlook on life. It’s very interesting to see the silver lining that flows through all of us. People are amazing. We fight to create and find beauty.”
A bright future
While Erickson’s career will involve improving the daily lives of patients, he doesn’t yet know which specialty he’ll pursue.
“I’m keeping my options open,” he says. “I really do love all aspects of medicine, so it’s hard for me to pick one.”
Newman says Erickson is destined for success wherever he focuses his energies. He recalls one time when Erickson was back in town, and the pair discussed research he was working on.
“I was just blown away by his knowledge,” Newman says. “I know he is going to be an amazing person in his profession. He is going to do really great things.”
Dr. Capozzi agrees.
“No matter what field Mike chooses to enter, his name will always be recognized as someone to refer a patient to,” she says. “He approaches patient care so passionately. He will definitely make a mark in the osteopathic medical profession as a leader.”