Air Force Captain to D.O. Candidate
About The Author
Hello! My name is Ashlee Arnold and I’m a 2nd year DO student at TouroCOM, NY. I was a non-traditional applicant in the 2019 admission cycle: 35 years of age, a former chemist, former high school science teacher, married, and an Air Force Captain at the time. It was a long road to get here and I had to make some seriously tough choices along the way. But you know what they say! Hindsight is 20/20 and these are the top 5 things I wish I knew.
01. ANYONE CAN BE A DOCTOR, EVEN ME!
I grew up in a small town and went to a small high school in rural California. My father was enlisted in the Air Force with a few credits from Community College of the Air Force under his belt. My mother was a Korean immigrant, raised on a humble farm in the countryside where high school was out of reach for most girls. Both of them worked hard to provide a typical, middle-class lifestyle for my older brother and I. Their hard work kept us clothed in the season’s latest trends and we never went hungry but we were often unsupervised with little guidance for our future.
When time came to apply to college I didn’t know what I could become and my outlook on opportunities was small, much like my town; I knew I was smart enough to stay out of unskilled, labor jobs but I didn’t entertain the idea of doctor. My goal wasn’t even to become a nurse; those programs are far too competitive and who was I? I was perfectly average and ignorant. I pursued Certified Nursing Assistant mostly because they were actively recruiting and offered paid training.
Being a CNA was the most depressing, laborious work I’ve ever done. I couldn’t tolerate it. I became depressed because there was so little I could do for the nursing home residents. It took all my time just to help them eat, potty and bathe. I decided to see what else was out there. I began taking classes at a community college and my goal was to get an associates degree. I became excited when I took general chemistry and decided I wanted to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. I chose to major in biochemistry instead because I had already met those prerequisites, in my blind search for fulfillment, and it wouldn’t require me to invest any more time or money.
In my university biology and chemistry courses I met students majoring in Pre-Med, something I had never heard of. “Pre-Med!” I thought, “that’s how you become a doctor!” Despite knowing better now, I thought I had sealed my fate, that I had chosen the wrong major and now and forever would be unqualified to become a doctor. It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I finally googled how to become a doctor and realized I had met all the requirements right out of college. All I needed to do a decade ago was take the MCAT and apply.
My advice to anyone who dreams of becoming anything, from doctor to astronaut, is to find out what the actual requirements are. I know that sounds obvious now, in the age of the internet, but I was living my life believing I was destined for a blue-collar because I didn’t have guidance or the wherewithal to seek that information out.
02. Pre-med isn’t the only way to get there
Like I said above, know the requirements! I have classmates with degrees in everything: music, history, art...
03. Military commitments can be broken… or made!
I was 7 years into my 8 year commitment to the USAF when I decided to pursue medical school. I timed my application to coincide with the end of my military contract. I thought it was the only way. I was wrong.
If you are in the military and think you need to wait out your commitment then you are wrong. Once you’re accepted into a professional degree program you are able to initiate separation procedures with a separation date of two weeks before the program start date. Talk to your personnel office.
Additionally, if you’re interested in serving in the military as a doctor and free Medical School, look into the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (military medical school) or the Health Professions Scholarship Program (scholarship to any medical school with a military commitment tacked on at the end).
04. I Could Trust My Military Leadership
I waited until near the end of my military commitment to begin pursuing medical school partly because I feared retaliation from my peers and leadership. There is a group-think mentality of “if you don’t want to be here then we don’t want you” in the military and I feared telling anyone about my goals outside the military. I was on track to attend Weapons School, a graduate-level instructor course in weapons and tactics, and a fast-track to promotion and 20+ years of military service. When this opportunity arose I had to really reflect on what I wanted the rest of my life to look like. Was I going to shit (go to weapons school) or get off the pot (pursue something else)? I developed severe anxiety contemplating this decision and sought out professional help. I was able to resolve to pursue what I wanted, not what the Air Force wanted and I finally sat down with my squadron commander to tell him, in trembling fear, that I didn’t want to go to weapons school and I will be applying to medical school instead. He was elated! I was shocked! He was incredibly supportive and even provided a letter of recommendation. It was such a relief but also frustrating that I stood in my own way for so long.
My advice to anyone in this kind of situation is to trust that those around you care about you and will help you. Don’t let fear cripple you.
05. Doctor Of Osteopathic Medicine Is A Viable And Worthwhile Option
When I started applying to medical schools I only sought out MD programs. I applied to just about every MD program in the Pacific Time Zone. My application was not strong if you only look at the numbers; my GPA and MCAT score were above the cutoffs but not competitive. I started receiving rejection letters almost immediately. “So many qualified applicants and we only have so many seats…” I was distraught! One day, while venting my frustration to a coworker, he asked if I considered DO and I said I had no idea what that was. He told me about a friend of his that was attending an A.T. Still program and that it's basically the same as an MD program. He even pointed out that many of the physicians at the military hospital are DOs. I had never noticed, always assuming a doctor was an MD. I began researching and found that the approach of Osteopathic Medicine was much more in line with what I think a doctor should be and how I wanted to be trained. I began applying to every program in the coastal states and was interviewed at four DO and one MD program. I was waitlisted at three DO schools and accepted late off the waitlist at two of those schools.
My advice to anyone who can afford casting a wide net is to cast the widest net possible. Limiting your school choices will limit your options. Also, don’t write off DO programs as less than MD, they are both well-trained. There’s even been recent changes that officially put the two programs on equal footing.
Pursue a program that fits your personality and goals. I chose the school where I felt I would be most supported, that had a cooperative, rather than competitive, atmosphere, that actually values DIVERSITY, and trains compassionate, culturally competent, patient focused doctors. Believe me, you can assess all these aspects if you talk to the students representatives on interview day.
Last Piece of Advice
Knowing these things might have gotten me into medical school sooner and my path could have been more clear and direct but I honestly don’t think my application would have been strong enough without the work history, life experiences and maturity I’ve gained in the decade since graduating college. Despite the struggles and frustration it took to get here, I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned. Don’t write off your dreams, seek out information, trust that those around you care and will support your goals, and make them happen.
P.S. Shout out to my husband! He didn’t sign up for this when we got married and he’s not happy that his wife is halfway across the country but he supports my goals and has my back.