Curiosity, compassion, and a magic touch distinguish this winner of an AMA Foundation Scholarship
In the summer of 2007, before he applied to medical school, Elliot Twiggs spent two months as a volunteer in Nairobi, Kenya. He taught biology to high school freshmen and tutored many young boys in the orphanage where he was staying. But it wasn’t all about academics: Twiggs also wowed his pupils with magic tricks—leaving them surprised, delighted, and clamoring for more.
Twiggs, a native of Hawaii, learned to impress a crowd early in life. “My mom worked as a nurse, and sometimes she’d take me along to the hospital,” he says. “I loved doing magic for patients. I’d let them choose a card, and then—to their amazement—the whole deck would turn into that card.”
In July, Twiggs experienced a similar sense of wonder while attending the American Medical Association (AMA) conference in Chicago. But it was no illusion: The 26-year-old University of Minnesota Medical School student found himself among 13 other outstanding individuals being awarded a 2012 Minority Scholars Award, funded by the AMA Foundation. Worth $10,000, the scholarship is given in recognition of scholastic achievement and aims to offset the mounting costs of medical education. According to the AMA, the average medical student owes $162,000 or more in debt on graduating—a significant financial burden.
“It was really special for me just to be recognized and receive the AMA award,” Twiggs says. But it was also financially beneficial. “I’m totally self-supporting, so I couldn’t afford medical school without financial aid and awards like this.”
Born in Honolulu, Twiggs comes from a family of African American and Panamanian descent. His mother, a single parent, supported her two boys as well as she could, but life could be unstable in the Twiggs household. An extended family provided additional support.
“I lived in seven different homes before I graduated high school,” Twiggs says. “As a result, I was forced to become independent at an early age. But overcoming obstacles strengthened my character and has helped me cope with the rigors that come with medical school.”
After graduating high school, Twiggs attended the University of Hawaii, studying biology, with the intention of eventually enrolling in medical school. But in the fall of 2007, his undergraduate degree in hand, he decided to put off his medical school applications. Instead, he spent three years working with special-needs kids, went on a medical mission with a church group to the island of Vanuatu, and visited an orphanage in Peru, where he worked with disadvantaged youth and volunteered at a hospital in Cusco.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” he says of the stint in South America. “My language skills are pretty good, but medical Spanish is a lot more difficult than everyday Spanish.” His ability to perform magic tricks, along with a talent for making balloon animals, helped him communicate and connect with many patients.
In 2009, Twiggs finally applied to medical school. “I was really blessed. I got interviews in New York, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and other places,” he says. But it was Minnesota that ultimately cast a spell. The school’s top-10 ranking in primary care and its reputation for offering excellent clinical experiences won him over.
In fact, Twiggs has repeatedly sought out experiences that go beyond the classroom and the University. He learned about rural medicine while shadowing a doctor in Monticello, Minn., for three days. In 2011 he won an award that allowed him to conduct clinical research on chronic pain and opiate misuse among psychiatric patients at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Patty Dickmann, M.D., a third-year psychiatry resident at the U of M who has served as Twiggs’s mentor since he arrived in the fall of 2010, says the ambitious young man has not only asked her for advice and counsel, he’s also tagged along with her in her daily work.
“Typically, first- and second-year students have limited clinical experience,” Dickmann says, “but he came in on his day off to go around with me.”
Still, Twiggs also knows the value of taking time off — to rest, socialize, perhaps demonstrate a card trick or two. He has served as president of the Medical Student Well-Being Advisory Group Committee, which seeks to promote well-being among students.
“The pressure is intense,” he says of medical studies, “but you can’t just lock yourself in a basement and study all the time.”
Ultimately, Twiggs hopes to work in pediatrics, family medicine, or addiction medicine. But if the road takes a sudden turn in another direction — an opportunity for international travel, or a chance to work with an underserved or minority community in some capacity — he’s willing to follow.
“I’m focused on reaching my goals,” says Twiggs. “But my three years off between college and medical school taught me that there’s more to medicine than just studying and taking tests.”
By Joel Hoekstra, a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
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