Our youngest son, Nathan, sat along side 200 other fourth year medical students waiting to receive his doctoral hood and take the Hippocratic Oath; that’s when the speaker asked each candidate to look into the audience, find their parents and thank them for the love, support and sacrifices they made which enabled them to be there. Emotions began to exact a toll as I sat in that audience next to an empty chair and made eye contact with Nathan. I couldn’t help think about the long hours that Libby spent with Nathan to help him overcome a learning disability so severe that we had discussed repeating a grade during the first of many obstacles which threatened to derail his dream of becoming a doctor.
Nathan ascended those four steps onto the stage of the Bell Auditorium last week in Augusta, Georgia but for the newly minted “Dr. Gilley” that journey was more arduous than anyone present could have known.
Fourth year medical students are required to submit a personal statement to the group of doctors and administrators of potential residency programs telling them something about their journey into the medical profession which cannot be determined by their resume and transcript, here is Nathan’s personal statement:
Before I started kindergarten I knew that I wanted to be a Christian missionary, but after several stays at St. Jude Children’s Hospital with my cousin who was born with retinoblastoma, I decided I wanted to be a doctor-missionary. As a child I desired to be the type of missionary that could help all kinds of sick people feel better; like the doctors who joked and played with my cousin when she was feeling well, but also comforted and gave us hope when she seemed to be slipping away. This desire to serve in a tangible way was strengthened by the stories of my faith that urged me to follow the example of the Great Physician, who healed and helped as often as he taught and preached.
With that goal in mind, and with an insatiable curiosity about the world, I worked hard to be the best student I could. Unfortunately, despite enjoying school, having great support at home, and doing my best, I struggled to read and write, even into the second grade. My first obstacle was unveiled when my mother insisted I be tested for learning disabilities and found out I was in the first percentile for dyslexia. My parents did not allow this to become an excuse (in fact I did not even learn I was dyslexic until much later); they only assured me that if I worked hard and faithfully, I could accomplish what I dreamed. After my testing, I was placed in special education classes and my mother worked with me one-on-one every day after school for several years so I could work around my reading and writing mix-ups and catch-up with my peers. This time taught me the power of persistence, determination, and hope.
In middle school I finally left behind special education classes and began working my way into advanced classes, so by the time I reached high school I was excelling in my classes and looking forward to college. I attended Trevecca Nazarene University where I pursued a biology major with a chemistry minor as my premedical prerequisites in addition to a religion degree that concentrated on missions to fulfill the requirements for pastoral ordination in my Church. During my junior year I worked as an intern at Medicos para la Familia and began to fall in love with the scope and diversity of family medicine, particularly in the unique context of under-served populations.
It was at this time, during my Junior year of college, that my mother was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer, which responded to aggressive treatment. At the end of my junior year and throughout my senior year I began dating a wonderful young lady who shared my heart for Christ, medicine, and missions. She showed me the unconditional love that can only be given by an individual already grounded and sustained by something greater than oneself. After graduation I took a year off from school to apply to medical schools, complete my Religion degree with studies in Eastern Europe, volunteer in primary care clinics back at home, and then take a trip to study abroad at a seminary in Ecuador before medical school.
My first year of medical school was unlike any challenge I had experienced. The class sizes were 10 times larger, the content was more detailed, and the pace was seemingly impossible. Despite beginning with confidence, as I tried to master the content of each lecture I allowed myself to fall behind and isolate. The harder I tried to catch up, the more difficult it became for me to concentrate and within a few months I was advised to take a leave of absence, study my weakest areas, and start over with the next class; that is, if I was truly committed to medical school.
During my leave of absence I studied, worked as a research technician to support myself, and sought advice from trusted mentors. Under their guidance and with much prayer, I committed myself to overcoming this obstacle and seeing medical school through to completion. I also proposed to and married the woman of my dreams, who had faithfully supported and unconditionally loved me since college and continued to do so even as I began my first year again, this time with a humble but more determined outlook.
Four months into my first year, about the time I seemed to find my stride, my mother’s breast cancer returned as peritoneal carcinomatosis. With her bleak five year survival, my wife and I began taking extra time to call and visit my mother; we also began trying to have a baby in time for my mother to see her first grandchild. In my second year of medical school, my wife became pregnant but my mother’s health began to rapidly decline. Meanwhile we requested a regional campus for my final clinical years, since the campus was closer to both of our parents and it used a longitudinal curriculum that seemed especially well suited for training primary care doctors in the variety and challenges of day-to-day community medicine.
In the hectic summer before my third year of medical school; my mother breathed her last, my daughter breathed her first, I narrowly passed Step 1 Board exam, and our family of three moved to a new campus. Despite the turbulent start, my clinical year was what I had desired since starting medical school- practical and tactile learning, centered around patients in need.
We look forward to the journey of residency itself and joining a family medicine residency program for the next three years in a program that will help equip me for the scope and depth of demands that I will meet as a medical missionary in under-served communities and join our family with a community and take up the responsibilities and privileges of being a family doctor even as I complete my medical residency training.