Editor’s note: Academic medicine has been challenged in recent years by staff shortages, a pandemic, and increasing vitriol against health care workers, leading to unprecedented levels of burnout and attrition. In this series, AAMCNews speaks with physicians and trainees to share stories of why they stay in medicine despite these challenges.
First-year medical student
University of Texas at Tyler School of Medicine
Growing up as the son of first-generation immigrants in Corpus Christi, Texas, Tony Phan knew from a young age that he wanted his life to be of service to others. When his parents and older brother emigrated from Vietnam in the 1980s, they barely spoke English and brought little with them. His parents got jobs as a crab fisherman and a cashier, but money was tight. Phan’s family went to the doctor only in cases of emergencies. As Phan attended high school, he recognized a love of science and his parents encouraged him to pursue as much education as he could – an opportunity neither of them had for themselves. Phan saw the military as an avenue to help him receive an education and gain experience in health care – a field he felt could be the perfect combination of his love of science and his urge to help others.
After high school, Phan enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as an emergency medical technician and worked performing nursing duties at the inpatient surgical unit at the Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Over his three years as a medical technician, Phan saw firsthand the impact that doctors could have on their patients’ well-being – not only physically, but emotionally too. To Phan, one doctor in particular really stood out: Evan Jones, MD, who was at that time an orthopedic surgery resident, went beyond treating the patient’s condition and connected with the patient on a personal level.
“I would see him put the science aside and speak to patients as people, explaining difficult concepts in simple terms, and having patience and understanding,” Phan says. Jones showed Phan that “medicine treats the condition, but people treat the patient.”
Phan tried to use this approach in his interactions with his patients as a medical technician. He recalls one older retiree on his unit who had gotten a reputation for being a “difficult patient.” The man resisted attempts by his care team to form a relationship and didn’t want to cooperate with his care plan. But Phan persisted, continuing to converse with him and trying to bring positivity and enthusiasm to their interactions. On the patient’s birthday, Phan brought him a cake and led the care team in singing to him. The patient broke down in tears of appreciation, finally allowing Phan to connect with him on an emotional level. Phan got the sense that, after that, the patient’s healing process went more smoothly.
After his military service, Phan completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at San Antonio and later applied to medical school, hoping to continue his journey as a family medicine physician. When he wasn’t accepted into medical school, he decided to pursue an alternative career in higher education— first working as a college admissions counselor at his alma mater, and then as an assistant director of a federal grant program at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
But for nearly a decade, he continued to dream of a career in medicine.
In August 2021, Phan left the safety and security of his full-time employment to obtain a graduate degree at Texas A&M University in preparation to reapply to medical school.
Finally, in January 2023, Phan received the call from UT Tyler School of Medicine and today, in the thick of his first semester, Phan says he still feels elated to be able to follow his dream. He hopes to be the family doctor he didn’t have as a child, who establishes long-term relationships with patients, helps connect them to social resources, and coaches them on healthier lifestyles.
“Over the last 10 years, I’ve learned compassion and humility,” he says. “As a physician, I can take care of patients on a much larger scale.”
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