The struggle is real

He nearly failed medical school before rising to new heights

“Don’t wait to reach out for help,” says Caleb Hentges, DO, who shares the story of his tumultuous first year and the journey back from self-doubt and depression.

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.

Caleb Hentges, DO

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.

Caleb Hentges, DO, learned that a support system of family and/or friends is vital to success in medical school. Here he's pictured (front row, left) at OMED with his wife, Jamie Hentges; Carissa Champion, DO; Sarah Wolff, DO; and Alex Wolff in the front row. Shane Halvorsen and Vanessa Halvorsen, DO, are in the back row. (Photo provide by Caleb Hentges, DO)

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.

Related reading:

A slap in the face might be exactly what you need

5 ways to maintain mental wellness and avoid burnout

3 comments

  1. Wow, I remember feeling this way vividly… I was single, the first in my family to enter medical school (my mother: “Are you sure about this?” – not very supportive) and probably a bit young to start my first year at PCOM (21). In retrospect, the path wasn’t perfect, it started very frightening in fact (tears being shed in secret frequently) but I recovered, sought out mentors to help pull me through, and despite being super busy now, enjoy the end point. Kudos to you for not giving up!

  2. This is a very good and timely article. It is important to know that when in med school, applying for a residency position, or fellowship position, we are OK, and actually expect applicants to be human. Yes, we have accepted people that failed and retook their board exams (both written and Standardized Patient exam), repeated years in med school or taken a leave of absence for a variety of reasons. I’m struck by the fact that several of my co-residents who competed in the SOAP process as they “didn’t match” in the 1st round are some of our strongest residents in the hospital and in clinic. It is very easy to think that if you struggle in one manner or another that you are a “failure” as described above, but you are not! I’ve come to see in myself and in others and these struggles often cause you to reflect and modify your behaviors. At the end of the day, I think this actually makes residents stronger and more adaptable. I’ve often felt and believed that everyone needs to know their limits and learn when to ask for help. Doesn’t matter your field of study or specialty chosen; you will hit the limit of your current knowledge, and will need to learn to ask for assistance and learn new things. So you might as well begin in med school, and not in residency for the first time. Congrats on your new position and being open about your struggles. I’ve been there as well!

  3. I am the failure this person would have been if he hadn’t gotten the help he needed. I am disgusted at how utterly useless the people I reached out to at the Sanford School of Medicine were when I found myself in a similar situation following a return from a leave of absence. There is such an enormous disconnect between what actually matters, real content and the material students are actually studying, and the nonsense, drawn out bandaid solutions and advice that I received when I approached the faculty for help that it is angering to think I actually trusted these people at one point. I would have been better off had I never involved the school and just became a thorn in the side of one of the classmates I didn’t know.

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