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Tomorrow's topflight physicians

Medical student leaders put their ideals into action

In the world of medicine—populated by bright, dedicated people—the bar for leadership is high. Yet every year a few students at the University of Minnesota Medical School exceed that bar, capturing the attention of their teachers, mentors, and peers.

These students have not only accumulated numerous academic achievements, honors, and degrees, but perhaps more important, they each possess that immeasurable extra something—a combination of characteristics and virtues that makes for the best doctors.

Whether in research, patient care, or community initiatives, the students featured here have demonstrated leadership in ways that matter to the future of medicine, says Medical School Dean Deborah Powell, M.D. “These four medical students stand out as leaders. They all express their own individual passion and commitment,” she says. “And they all have exemplified, at this early stage in their careers, a strong desire to improve the field of medicine.”

These future physicians instinctively understand that one cannot have optimism without realism, compassion without intellect, tenacity without flexibility. In these students, the science of medicine takes flight on the heart of it.

Tara Frerks: Healing with compassion

Since she was a 9th-grader helping to lead bible and sports camps on the Grand Portage Reservation in northern Minnesota, Tara Frerks has consciously made choices based on how they affect others.

She also was developing leadership traits as captain of her basketball and volleyball teams throughout high school and college at Bethel University in Arden Hills. “In sports, discipline and sacrifice are key elements to creating a team,” Frerks says. “Among teammates, there’s an interdependence, a selflessness—a recognition that each of us is part of something bigger.”

That sense of teamwork is a quality that “is sorely needed for the future of health care,” says Gwen Halaas, M.D., director of the University’s Rural Physician Associate Program (RPAP), which Frerks participated in as a third-year medical student at the University.

“Tara’s got this thing about her, a balance of qualities: her maturity, confidence, and compassionate approach to medicine,” says Halaas. “She understands the art of medicine, and more than that, she understands the heart of medicine.”

While sports taught her a lot about teamwork, it was Frerks’s hospice work, which she began as a junior in college, that started “a whole revolution” in her life. Caring for dying people and their families “confirmed that people can be healed in an emotional, relational way even when they’re dying,” says Frerks, who completed her first two years of medical school on the Duluth campus.

Frerks offers an anonymous quote to explain her revelation: “The experience of being valued is the beginning of healing.”

That message resonated with Frerks when she was asked to change a patient’s dressing as an RPAP student in a small practice in Brainerd. Upon meeting the patient and her husband, Frerks quickly recognized the couple’s mental distress. She learned that they felt disregarded—as though the patient had been passed from one doctor to another following several unexpected medical complications.

Frerks, who spent two hours with the couple, coauthored a story about the encounter that has been accepted for publication in the national journal Family Medicine.

“I think they felt they were finally cared for,” Frerks says of the couple. “They were listened to; their story was heard and valued.”

Gareth Forde: Seeking solutions

Gareth Forde is no stranger to hurdles. He cleared them when he ran for his high school and college track teams, and he helped others do the same when he coached track at Jackson State University in Mississippi. He’s doing it again with the pipeline project he and classmate Matthew Fitzpatrick launched at the Medical School.

Forde helped gather more than 50 people from the University, Mayo Clinic, other medical organizations, public schools, community groups, and local businesses and corporations. Their task: to come up with answers to the dual problem of inequitable health care and socioeconomic barriers to medical school for students from underserved populations.

At the end of the day there was a solution: the pipeline project, an initiative to improve the health of underserved populations by creating a more diverse health-care workforce in Minnesota. The project, supported by the University’s Medical School, the Mayo Medical School, and the Minnesota Medical Association, calls for equipping students from underserved, rural, and ethnically diverse groups with the tools they need to gain acceptance to medical school and to succeed once they’re enrolled.

“Gareth presented evidence from the literature on the characteristics of the pipeline program that would work,” says Kathleen Watson, M.D., associate dean for students and student learning at the Medical School. “He’s a natural collaborator, a natural convener, but he’s also very scholarly. He uses those skills not just for medicine but to research socioeconomic policies.”

Forde, who is married and has two young children, says his family helps him to find balance and keep his work in perspective. “In every decision, I really have to think about the consequences it has on my family,” says Forde, who plans to become a trauma surgeon.

That path will offer challenges very different from the socioeconomic ones he’s tackling with the pipeline project, but Forde says life’s challenges all have something in common: They demand flexibility and problem-solving—and the courage to step into the unknown.

“I see a problem, I start working on a solution,” says Forde. “Studying the problem is not enough. You can over-study; you can paralyze yourself. You have to take off—test  your wings.”

Matthew Fitzpatrick: Making connections

Copilot on the pipeline project, Matthew Fitzpatrick was identified by Forde as the ideal person to help him realize the initiative when they were first-year medical students.

“He got it,” says Forde. “He wanted to do it for the right reasons.”

Those reasons are evident in the choices Fitzpatrick has made in life. While his degrees in psychology, public health, and theology might suggest a young man in search of direction, each course of study has helped to shape Fitzpatrick’s character—and his approach to medicine.

“Matt has a sense of quiet outrage, a sense of gentleness,” says Watson. “And this may be the best quality of a leader: He is tenacious. When something doesn’t work, he explores other possibilities. He is convinced that medicine can—and should—be provided judiciously and fairly to everyone.”

Fitzpatrick didn’t decide to go to medical school until he was 29. By then, he’d already done a lot of living—and studying. After getting his master’s degree in theology from Notre Dame and “realizing there wasn’t much of a market for religious studies,” he worked for two years in the Middle East’s West Bank and Gaza Strip, writing grants and working on educational publications for health-care clinics throughout the region.

“[That experience] exposed me to different worldviews and opinions, and to how people have made sense of suffering in their lives and of their place in the world,” Fitzpatrick says.

It also compelled him to return to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins. “Public health is a way of helping more people in a broader but no less important way,” he explains.

Five years ago, Fitzpatrick came to Minnesota, where he could be closer to his tight-knit family (he and his five siblings all ran together in the Twin Cities Marathon last year) and prepare for medical school. 

Now, in his third year, doing clinical rotations, Fitzpatrick says it’s all coming together. Psychology, theology, and public health provide him with a personal, spiritual, and political way of understanding health care’s shortcomings as well as its promise.

“Medicine will stimulate me on all levels,” says Fitzpatrick. “It will allow me to be with others in the most joyous and challenging periods in their lives. I couldn’t ask for more in a career.”

Craig Eckfeldt: Blending intellect and passion

Those who knew Craig Eckfeldt shortly after college, when he worked for six months in “the oil business” (changing oil for Jiffy Lube) and as a “builder” (working as a carpenter’s assistant), might be surprised that he ended up in the University of Minnesota’s M.D./Ph.D. program. They’d be equally surprised to learn that he quickly distinguished himself among his highly talented peers with groundbreaking hematopoietic stem cell research at the University’s Stem Cell Institute.

And their surprise would likely please Eckfeldt, whose regular-guy charm easily belies his sharp intellect and passion for science.

It is precisely this balance that makes him the ideal physician-scientist, according to Tucker LeBien, Ph.D., director of the University’s Medical Scientist Training Program. “Craig is very genuine, very smart. He’s got the personal and professional skill set that predicts success,” says LeBien, who is also deputy director of the Cancer Center. “He is committed to both the practice of medicine and the conduct of research.”

The self-effacing Eckfeldt says he’s somewhat mystified by his success. “It was a series of serendipitous events,” he says. “A lot of it has to do with recognizing opportunity, not trying to paddle upstream. In some ways, it’s better to be lucky than good.”

In truth, Eckfeldt should claim more credit. For his Ph.D., he identified what he describes as “a handful of candidate genes that may ultimately be important to the process of stem cell regeneration.” In other words, his research brought science a step or two closer to figuring out how to make stem cells in the lab—vital progress in the search for cancer treatments and cures. The results have been published in PLoS Biology and in Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology.

“Research on developing new practical therapies is fascinating,” says Eckfeldt, who is currently doing clinical rotations and begins his internal medicine residency in June. “But I need something to keep the fire going, and that’s the clinical aspect—trying to draw on that experience to figure out what questions to ask in the lab.

“My greatest source of satisfaction and motivation,” he adds, “is the realization that it doesn’t require a revolutionary new scientific discovery to work with patients and their families to improve their quality of life.” 

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