January 22, 2019

Vy Tran: Keeping it real

Reflecting on how far you’ve come can fortify your strength and resolve for moving forward

Diverse life experiences are the threads that bind each of our incoming classes together, each into a unique dynamic fabric. M1 Vy is one of more than 10% of med students in our newest class to be the first of their families to have attended college. Here she answers 11 questions about how her background, especially how coming from low-income household informed her path to the present, and where she hopes to go in the future.

What called you to explore a career in medicine?

I discovered medicine as a calling that fuses my love for human biology with social justice when I started volunteering as a medical interpreter during freshman year at Stanford University. The patients I’ve gotten to know had broken bodies, in a broken health care system that continuously fails to take into account those in America’s shadows. Often, people on the periphery of society (low socioeconomic class, immigrants, minorities) are not at the table where decisions are being made. These reflections compelled me to advance the field of medicine to be not only more effective but also more inclusive.

In all the privileged spaces that I have navigated, medicine is perhaps the most privileged, inherent in the intimacy of being there for people in their most vulnerable moments, bearing witness to life, death, and everything in between. I hope to employ my education and training to honor this sacred space in which my patients would feel not only cared for, but also seen and heard.

How has UMMS been a good fit for you?

As narratives and voice are essential to my goals as a physician and health advocate, I chose U-M for its strong curriculum harnessing impact beyond treating patients, and the Health Equity Scholars Program fostering my leadership and community engagement. I look forward to venturing out in the community--much like I had done at Stanford--except this time not to fancy galas but to fields and orchards. Despite their fundamental contribution to our well-being, migrant farm workers are among the most invisible members of our society. I am particularly excited about the U-M Migrant Farm Worker Outreach Clinic as an outlet for advocacy to address systemic inequities from working conditions, access to health care and language barriers.

What other ways has UMMS been a good fit for you/your goals, both personal and professional?

Michigan truly cares for its students. During my time on the interview trail, many schools talked about their school’s support on this difficult journey of medicine, but at Michigan I still remember the “care package” of various items from bandaids and ibuprofen to deodorant and lotion in the bathrooms on my interview day. I knew then that this school is really into the details and supporting students holistically, beyond the academic.

In just my first few months at Michigan, I’ve been incredibly grateful for the relationships I have with my Doctoring Coach and Student Services Counselor as well as my peers. I think what makes Michigan really special is the way it both supports students to succeed and has our back when things do not go as planned. Medical school has been challenging for me personally, and it’s because of this “Michigan Difference” that I still enjoy every single day showing up to lecture and being excited about my training as a future physician.

You have been a contributor to the “Being Not-Rich at UM” guide for students. How did you find this guide and why did you decide to get involved as a contributor?

During my Second Look Weekend, I heard one of the current M1s talking about the “Being Not-Rich at UM” document, and as a first-generation student of low-income background, I immediately felt curious and drawn to the project. I was eager to see the conversations around this topic and to contribute to the dialogue as well as the movement itself. It was inspiring to me that Michigan was a place where these projects were taking off and stimulating socioeconomic class dialogues across the country.

What specific resources/activities/events would you like prospective med students who identify as coming from a lower- to middle-income background and/or first generation to know about at UMMS?

When I first came to Michigan, I shared the “Being Not-Rich at UM” resource with other students who were taking part in the LEAD (Leadership & Enrichment for Academic Diversity) summer program, a joint venture between the Office of Admissions, the Office for Health Equity and Inclusion and the Office for Medical Student Education. It was through LEAD that I met my current best friends and where I learned about other resources within the med school. For example, we have great tutors paid for by the school. We have Charlotte O’Connor, our learning specialist who supports smoother transitions to medical school. While everyone benefits from these resources, I think the first-generation, low-income medical students would especially appreciate them.

As a low-income student and the first one in my family to attend college and medical school, I see myself as someone who has pulled herself up by the bootstraps. My perseverance has enabled me to accomplish many goals. At the same time, I also recognize the value of asking others for help. I had reached out to tutors early on during the Foundations of Molecular Medicine. However, ultimately, I counted on myself to know how best to navigate medical school. After all, I had done so during my undergraduate years at one of the top schools in the country. In retrospect, I underestimated the unprecedented rigor of medical school. I was dealing with a new beast every couple of weeks (sequences) -- I did not have the luxury of time to figure it out on my own.

Another resource that I have been tapping into is the weekly yoga classes at the medical school and Red Yoga in Ann Arbor. In the past, I had a regular practice of journaling, yoga and meditation, which had tapered off since medical school started. In addition to working on this reflection during winter break, I came back to journaling again and plan on integrating a consistent gratitude journal and yoga practice (2-3x weekly). These short yet powerful moments of pause give rise to much personal insight and serve as mindful reminders of why I am here and what I hope to do.

Is medical school all that you expected so far?

My medical school journey has been rocky, as I’ve been struggling despite giving my all. Having felt as though I’ve lost my academic identity as a high achiever, I've had some time to reflect and find myself again and, in doing so, have gained greater clarity on my purpose and core values. Perhaps I am not always guaranteed a stellar numerical performance, but my most treasured knowledge is knowing my values and the standards of accountability that I hold myself to. And if I can pass these ‘tests’ of character in life, then I will feel whole no matter what. Numerical values do not form my identity. Core values do.

This unmeasurable component is perhaps the most underestimated aspect of a medical school curriculum. Moving forward, it will be important for me to think critically, keeping both the quantifiable (performance, score, etc.) and unquantifiable (moral judgment, integrity) components in parallel, and learn to juggle the two simultaneously. Even if the quantifiable performance comes up short, I still have control over the unquantifiable, which is the test of my character itself; in many ways, this is the most important pearl of wisdom. There will always be many tests and evaluations. Some are obvious, in the forms of quizzes and exams, and others are hidden in the decisions that I make as a student and as a person. While it is important to perform well academically in the Scientific Trunk and Branches, I first and foremost must stand on firm roots--having my values in place to guide my growth.

Which resources on campus have been most helpful to you so far in your education?

In addition to the resources mentioned above, my House Counselor Amy has been like a mother to me. While she can help with many logistical things such as exam deferrals, I think her most valuable assets are her generous listening skills, hugs, and of course, home-baked cookies. I remember meeting with her the first time, just to introduce myself (it’s not required for med students to ever meet their house counselors, but I think it behooves everyone to do so). She has a way with her welcoming smile and total acceptance that I just broke down in tears and told her all about how I was feeling. Although I was very homesick, the speed of the curriculum and adjustment to med school in general had suppressed these emotions. When talking to Amy, I was able to open up in ways that surprised even myself.

Medicine is an arduous journey for anyone, but I think we lower- to middle-income background and/or first generation students experience significantly more challenges given other pressures such as the need to financially take care of family or the pressure to make them proud.

What other opportunities are you looking forward to most as a med student?

I see myself as a future dual physician and community advocate who is involved in shaping health policies. I look forward to volunteering more as a Spanish medical interpreter at the U-M Student-Run Free Clinic. In addition to the important skills of patient interaction and listening, the act of interpreting has taught me important nuanced lessons about advocacy. As a medical interpreter, I was trained to translate verbatim the patients’ words, enabling patients to communicate rather than speaking for them.

What are your career goals?

Years down the road, I hope to lead a "Reverse Diagnosis" movement, where patients and communities co-diagnose the health care system to help doctors and policymakers address both acute and systemic pain points. Only then can we liberate communities like mine where a liquor store is more accessible than a hospital, where the ZIP code could have more impact than the genetic code, and where language barriers could cost a patient’s life. As a future physician and leader, I will tune into these stories of pain and spur momentum for greater healing.

Building on the scientific rigor of evidence-based medicine, the evidence I must bring to light are my own and my patients’ narratives. As these patient-doctor encounters are microcosmic battlegrounds for health justice, I hope to serve both on the frontline of care and arming patients and communities with the greatest arsenal any democracy could offer--our voices--to dismantle our nation’s chronic inequities.

Moving from California, how do you like living in Ann Arbor?

I think I’m a snow person. Since I had never experienced it before, that was hard to predict prior to coming to Michigan. All my friends tell me to wait until March and see if I’m tired of it, but I don’t think I will be. It’s not even that cold to me. I love the cozy feeling of mittens and warm coats when I walk outside, watching the snowflakes floating their way through the trees and buildings. I think it helped that I scored some good boots from the Salvation Army when exploring Ann Arbor the summer before starting medical school. Spring, summer, and fall are also wonderful, and there are always lots of events going on. I especially enjoy the art scene, and a walk in the Arboretum at any time of the year.

What advice would you give to a prospective student considering the University of Michigan Medical School for their training?

Be fearlessly vulnerable. Open up more to those who care about you and tap into your support network. At first, I hesitated to talk with my family about medical school because I did not want them to worry about me. I also limited discussing my concerns with my medical school friends in Michigan because I assumed they also had their own stress to deal with and would be too busy to help me. However, I was wrong about both of these assumptions. My closest medical school friend has offered so much support, inviting me to study and talking through the materials with her. Another close friend revealed that he had also struggled as I have, but has kept quiet. Over the break, I talked about my medical school challenges with my sister. She was not only supportive but also wished that I had reached out to her sooner. I had been depriving myself of this compassion and support in fear of being an emotional burden on others. I’ve learned that medical school is a long journey in which you can and should count on others for support to flourish.