'It's like a rite of passage for everybody': Match Day determines residency for Mayo Clinic med students

Mar. 19—ROCHESTER — Match Day is the culmination of four years of hard work and late nights for students at the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine.

At 11 a.m. Friday, March 18, students at all three campuses opened an envelope containing arguably the most anticipated information of med school: where they will complete their residency.

"I think it's kind of crazy to think that the small little envelope is going to dictate your personal life and career for at least the next three to five years," said med student Ben Nelson. "But it's also exciting at the same time."

This year, the ceremony was back indoors at the civic center.

Emotions always run high on Match Day. It's a bigger day than graduation for med students.

"Match Day is kind of bittersweet because you're reaching the conclusion of your medical education and moving on to residency, which is exciting, but then you say goodbye to all these friends and essentially a new family that you've made during the four years," Nelson said.

Nelson's situation is different from others. He's in med school on an Army scholarship after participating in ROTC as an undergraduate student at the University of North Dakota. Because of this, he did the military match, which happened in December.

Nelson matched into the orthopedic surgery residency at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He'll complete a six-year residency, then fulfill an eight-year service commitment.

This Match Day, he was able to watch as a spectator. But he doesn't think that curbed any anxiety.

"I'm feeling (my classmates') anxiety because I want everybody to end up with their top choices," Nelson said. "I'm sure I'll be just as nervous as they are when it comes time for them to open their envelopes."

For Adam Howard, med school was an "existentially challenging experience."

"It's been a privilege to be here," Howard said. "I'm just, more than anything, galvanized to honor the opportunity through a career in service."

Howard's path to med school was non-traditional. After dropping out of high school after his freshman year, he became a taekwondo instructor. That profession required a different toolset, but "both medicine and taekwondo are scientifically developed arts, which aim to promote human dignity and wellness," Howard said.

Taekwondo eventually led him to pursue med school and a residency in psychiatry.

"As I was teaching taekwondo, I found more and more that what fascinated me wasn't doing spinny complicated kicks or breaking a thousand bricks or winning medals. It was the effects that it had on the people, and it was the people themselves," Howard said. "I worked a lot with children who had behavioral concerns or even learning disabilities, ADHD, adults who had back pain or who were deconditioned or wanting to get in shape. I found helping people grow towards their best selves compelling. And I also found it frustrating not to know what they were going through, not to deeply understand what they were going through. So I went to school to better understand that."

Ultimately, Howard wants to contribute to a paradigm of medical care where the person is thought of wholly, and not as a byproduct of their disease or injury.

"I think that technology has grown out of proportion to wisdom. If we can reduce it to an EKG reading, or EEG reading, or a gene, or a lab value, then we do," Howard said. "The clinicians that really inspired me don't fall into the trap of saying, 'Aha, I found the culprit.' They take all of the data and say, 'I have found some colors that fill in the whole painting of this person's life.'

"For me, a fulfilling career would be one in which I'm able to care for patients in that whole way, which makes them feel like human beings, and makes them feel like they're being seen for everything that they want to be, not just the injury at hand."

Match Day for Howard is the culmination of 10 years of work — 10 years since he took his first college course. Match Day was also the big uncertain thing.

"You're thinking, am I going to live the dream? Or is this going to be still another stepping stone to the dream?" Howard said. "In your heart, it's not about where you go, it's about what you do there. But then there's that tired bit of you that's been through it for so long. It's just deeply hoping you get that affirmation of, you open the envelope, and it's the dream."