That is the second-most common question that I get asked, and it has a complicated answer. I’ve always been one to need a lot of information before I can make major decisions. But first I must provide some background.
My parents’ incredible story.
My parents were in medical school in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge overthrew the Cambodian republican government. They fled through the jungle to get out of the capital city, only to get caught and put in an extermination camp. One week before my mom’s scheduled execution, rebels attacked and helped people escape.
My parents were able to cross the western border get to a Thai refugee camp. From there they took a wooden boat across the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea to the Philippines to a refugee processing center.
While awaiting their fate of where they would go, my dad got a job at the local hospital delivering babies. In an 18-month period, my dad happened to deliver two babies for the same U.S. Navy Officer. They became friends and he would later go on to sponsor my parents to come to the U.S.
The nomad life.
My parents arrived in Florida in 1981. Over the next six-and-a-half years, my dad got his G.E.D. (there was no proof of my parents’ education from Cambodia), an A.A., and a B.S. in engineering all while learning English and working multiple jobs.
After becoming an engineer, we moved frequently all over the southeast because my dad kept getting promotions or finding a better job. I was changing schools every 1.5 to 2 years, and it was limiting my exposure to careers other than engineering because of inability to establish relationships due to inadequate time in any one place.
The turning point.
During the summer of 1994 we took a family vacation to Toronto. We were there to see family, but it just so happened that Dream Team II was there also to compete in the FIBA World Championship. Luckily for me, my uncle took me to see Dream Team II play during the group stage.
It turned out that he was a pharmacist at the local hospital. I felt empowered to have a role model who worked in healthcare (an acceptable profession per my parents) and had a loving family and nice life — the American (or I guess in this case Canadian) dream. He seemed to love his job and was proud to be a pharmacist.
From that point forward, I always figured that I would become either a pharmacist or a physician.
When I was a pre-med/health student, I made a lot of friends whose parents were physicians. Interestingly, all of them told me not to become a physician because it’s “not worth it anymore.” I asked why their kids were pre-med and I always got some variation of, “we told them the same thing but he/she is doing it anyway.”
These interactions made a huge impact on me because I had limited exposure to (and knowledge of) what it took to become a physician, as well as the different specialties and subspecialties to choose from.
So to finally answer the question: Positive pharmacy exposure + negative feedback from physicians + limited information to offset negative feedback = applying to pharmacy school after playing in a rock band for a year after undergrad.
The nontraditional path worked for me.
Looking back on my situation, I believe that having a career before medical school actually made me into a better physician. It gave me maturity, perspective, and real world experience that kept me grounded during tough times, and also made me more empathetic to the patient experience. I also married a smart and beautiful woman who makes me a better person each day.