Recent grad Caleb Hentges, DO, has the CV of a former med student rock star. Student government president at Midwestern University Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine. Member of the Council of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents. Student advisor to the AOA Board of Trustees.
But his achievements were all harder won than they appear on first glance.
Behind the leadership roles is a story of a medical student battling personal demons and depression while nearly failing out of his first year. It’s also a story of landing on the other side as a stronger and more compassionate individual and physician.
Dr. Hentges is now a first-year pediatric resident at Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Following is an edited Q-and-A about his difficult first year of medical school and how he ultimately persevered and thrived.
Tell me about your story and how it played out.
In 2013, I started at Midwestern University’s Arizona campus. During my first year, I ended up taking a leave of absence about halfway through because I was struggling mightily with academics, personal life and depression. The personal stuff was affecting my academic work, and my poor academic performance was probably contributing to my personal problems.
How did you end up taking a leave of absence?
I talked to my dean right before finals week the second quarter of med school and told her everything that was going on. She said, ‘you need to take a leave of absence right now and not risk failing any more classes,’ because I had already failed one. It was great advice, but I didn’t take it. I ended up failing one more and eventually withdrew from the rest.
What were your first signs of a struggle?
The very first exam that we took in med school, the class average was 98 percent. I got a 78. Before I knew the average, I thought my score was not so bad. After that, the next 7 exams, I failed every single one. Passing is 70 percent and I would get like 68, 67, 69 percent. That was terribly frustrating and very discouraging.
What was the hardest part of the whole experience for you?
I would see high class averages and feel like I was the only person not doing well. I am literally on an island doing crappy and everybody else is out on the ocean surfing these huge waves and making it all look easy. But in reality, there were a lot of people struggling. None of us wanted to talk about it because we were ashamed.
How did your school support the process?
When I came back and started over with the classes that I had either dropped or failed, I got a tutor in every single class. The school paid for the tutoring. That was hugely beneficial.
I had an incredible tutor who is now an anesthesia resident in Detroit. The things she taught me and the way she helped me, I would not have made it through medical school if it weren’t for her, and my anatomy tutor and my first biochemistry tutor.
What made them so helpful?
They taught me how to study, number one. But the most important thing that they did was become my friends. They became a support system for me. If I was struggling, I knew that I could reach out to any one of those three people and with no questions asked, they would offer me advice.
What was it like going back after having almost failed your first year?
During my first go around, I would get to school at 7 a.m. and study before class. Then I would go to class all day and study until 10 p.m. at school. And it wasn’t working. Nothing was sticking.
When I came back, after I had learned some coping mechanisms and talked to a counselor, I’d be at school no more than 10-12 hours a day. That was dramatically less than before, and my grades were so much better.
At the end of my second first year, I ran for student government president and won. And then I served on the Council of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents for one year as a general member and then the second year as vice chair, during which I was the coordinator for the Mental Health Awareness Task Force. So I tried to take my experience and use it to help as many other students as I could.
What advice would you give someone who’s struggling in med school?
Don’t wait to reach out for help. People say that it’s never too late to ask for help but unfortunately, in our world, there are times when it is too late. If I had waited another couple of weeks, I could very well have failed out. It is OK not to be OK. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.
What lessons did you learn from repeating your first year?
There’s so much pressure on students to get good grades. You think you always have to be the smartest. But if someone has a child who is sick, they don’t care what classes a doctor did well on. All they care about is that he/she is trying to save their kid’s life. You’re learning how to be a doctor, not how to be a test-taker. If you fail an exam, you’re not a failure.
I also learned that a support system of family and/or friends is vital to success in medical school. Take the time to nourish those relationships. There’s no way I’d be here without my wife. She’s my rock.
Finally, stepping away from school and taking a break from studying is hugely important. It’s refreshing. It energizes you.
How is your life different today than back then?
I’m definitely not afraid to ask for help anymore. I’m also more comfortable with my deficiencies. I know my limits and I’m not afraid to say, ‘hey, I need help here.’ As you get further into med school, rotations and residency, you start to see how not knowing your limits is dangerous. You could really hurt a lot of people by not knowing your limits. At first, I was afraid of letting people know I had any weaknesses. Now, I don’t care if people know I struggled.