In today's interview on overcoming adversity, you'll hear from a physician on how to get through med school while reading at the bottom 5 percent of students.

Sounds crazy, doesn't it? It's true.

The story comes to us from my friend The Physician Philosopher (TPP). TPP is one of the many physician bloggers whose goal is to help young doctors take control of their finances. For now, he's remaining anonymous. You'll hear more about that from him. I'd encourage you to visit his blog and read his content. It's not just for physicians. His recent article on the road to burnout is a great example of his compassion and style.

TPP and I have an interesting history together. He and I are part of a blogging group. Like many of his physician colleagues, TPP takes issues with the assets under management (AUM) method of compensation for advisors. He's written about it in pretty strong terms. We exchanged several emails about it and talked further when we met at FinCon in September. Through these conversations, we've gained a mutual respect for each other.

I'd say we both wish more people could disagree without being disagreeable or hateful toward one another. From these conversations, a friendship has developed. It's one of the things I love about the blogging community. It is a community.

TPP's story is quite remarkable. He tells it honestly and transparently. He overcame tremendous odds to get through med school and become a teaching physician at a major university.

With that, let me introduce you to The Physician Philosopher.

Tell us a little about yourself

Well, my name is The Physician Philosopher – maybe someday I won’t be an anonymous blogger. The most interesting thing about me is that my nose is crooked in real life, and I have no idea how that happened. Now, you'll go around public trying to figure out who I am!

On a more serious note, I am a sinner saved by grace, a husband married to a saint, and a father to three little philosophers (2 girls and a boy). I was born in the Carolinas, raised in Florida, and have moved all over the east coast – I don't know exactly where to say that I am from.

Currently, we reside in the south where I work as a physician in anesthesiology. Back before I had children – and I had “real” hobbies – they included brewing beer, doing some woodwork, and playing poker. Now, I spend most of my time outside of work hanging out with my family and writing for my blog.

Why medicine? Why anesthesiology?

Medicine was a calling that started in high school. Growing up with a father who was (and is) disabled following a hunting accident allowed me to see the good and bad that medicine has to offer.

After becoming a Christian in my junior year of high school, I realized I wanted to do mission work of some kind. This passion carried me through college and into medical school.

That dream still grows underneath the surface. My most recent mission trip was a couple of years ago to Accra, Ghana.

Anesthesiology was a natural choice for me, though I decided on it really late in the process. While I need a surgeon for surgical procedures (just as they need us), anesthesiology is the only stand-alone medical specialty in my mind. From creating an order in my head of what’s best for a patient to finish the task – anesthesiologist can do it all.

It is the perfect skill set for mission work. Need an IV no one else can get? How about a central line, peripheral nerve block, or massive resuscitation? We are who you call when people are dead or dying.

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When you responded to one of my adversity interviews, you said you had a reading disability. Tell us about that

The truth is that we are all human. We all have strengths and weaknesses. One of my biggest academic inadequacies growing up was reading, but I often overcame that with my intellect – until I couldn’t – as I’ll outline below.

When I was in high school, my grandfather enrolled me in a Sylvan learning center to help me with my reading. I didn’t really know what was wrong at that point, other than that I read slowly compared to others.

Growing up, the time it became most apparent was when I read a paper or book with someone else. They’d want to flip the page when I was about 25% through reading it. I often had to restart reading as I’d usually get distracted and forget what I read. Frustrated, I’d just ask them to let me have it when they were done.

Despite this, I did well in school. I landed one of the top scholarships at my small undergrad. It was an all expenses kind of deal – room, board, tuition, and meals. The reason? It involved writing an essay and then interviewing in person – which highlight my strengths. Thankfully, there was no reading competition for that one.

College went well for the most part. I was a chemistry and philosophy, double major. While reading philosophy took me a lot longer than others, I enjoyed it – and so I didn’t mind. You had as much time as you wanted to finish essays and exams.

In applying for medical school, I had to take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) twice. The first time, my score was less than stellar. This was the first sign that I might have a tough time in medicine, which is full of standardized exams.

After spending an entire summer in my middle of nowhere college-town studying for my second shot at the MCAT, I did well enough to matriculate into medical school – landing my top choice after being on the wait-list for a few months.

Engaged to my wife-to-be, accepted to medical school, and my whole life ahead of me. What could possibly go wrong?

Tell us about your medical school experience and your career paths. How did your reading disability get diagnosed?

After getting into medical school, the string of things going well continued as I was elected the class president after being there for a couple of months. Anatomy was going well enough, which was the only class initially. Those exams were based on memorization and facts. Not my strength, but I could hack it.

Then came biochemistry. The question stems started getting longer and longer. All of a sudden, I could barely make it through the exams, often had to rush, and began noting how my classmates not only had time to check through their exam a second time – but they finished with time to spare!

I passed biochemistry with a 74.5… ½ of a point the other direction and I would have failed. I might not be a doctor today.

After barely passing biochemistry, I began to realize what was going on. Getting tested by a psychologist in my first year of medical school was quite the revelation. Having gone my entire life in a small town, I somehow missed being diagnosed with a reading disability.

In fact, my reading rate was in the bottom 5% of college students. I also had hints of dyslexia (flipping words and sentence structure in my head). Having trouble with attention deficit disorder (ADD) didn’t help either.

Talk about a humbling experience. My entire life I was always one of the smartest people in any given room. After my first two years of medical school, I was 103 out of 119 in my medical school class. Life was just starting to teach me who the cream of the crop was – and it definitely wasn’t me.

It shocked me to find out you got through medical school with a reading rate in the bottom 5% of college students. How did you manage? How did you overcome it?

 It’s my personality to set a goal and to go and get it. I’ve never had a problem with being indecisive. I know what I want. The question wasn’t, “I wonder if this will happen?”  It was a matter of making it happen. This was just another obstacle.

Part of this is just run of the mill pragmatism through learning better test-taking techniques. Start with the question first, read the choices, and then skim the stem of the question, etc. I also learned to decide very quickly if I knew something or not. If I wasn’t sure, I’d mark it and come back.

Honestly, I just got through those first two years knowing that the last person in the class was still called “doctor.” And I also knew this had little reflection on what type of physician I’d become someday.

When did things turn around for you? How have your prior experiences shaped you?

After my second year was completed, the big hurdle was now set in front of me. Step 1 of the United States Medical Licensure Exam (USMLE). This one test determines two things: (1) If you can become a doctor, and (2) which kind of doctor you get to become.

A passing score is enough to become a doctor of some kind. However, a low passing score eliminates many medical specialties as career options. Thinking about dermatology, ENT, or orthopedics? A low score will prohibit those choices.

Fortunately, I studied day and night for 14 hours a day for six weeks and not only passed but scored well above the national average. Hard work – and learning how to read “good enough” on the exam – truly paid off.

How did this affect you in those years? Did others know about your struggles? If so, how did they respond?

It impacted me profoundly. The first professor in medical school that I told about my disability said it was probably just a reflection of my intelligence and that I would fail out of medical school. How’s that for encouragement?

After that, I was much more guarded with sharing about my reading disability. I also became 100% committed to proving him and everyone else wrong about my aptitude. I make goals, and I go and get them. Remember?

After I proved my first significant naysayer wrong by passing Step 1 of the USMLE, I figured I’d keep proving people wrong. You want me to walk 1 mile? I’ll walk two instead.

In my third year of medical school, I would finish in the top ¼ of the class and get elected to become the student body president. In my fourth year, I would match into my top choice of residency and become one of two chief residents in my last year in residency.

Then, in my first year as an attending physician, I would publish three randomized control trials and win the Golden Apple Award – given to the best teacher in the department as voted by the residents. In my top ten anesthesia residency, that had never happened before.

Take that, you reading disability. It wouldn’t define me.

After all, my God is bigger, and – through Him – so am I.

How has that affected you as an adult?

Honestly, it’s been a blessing in disguise. It’s provided a way for me to have empathy for others who have vices, failures, and weaknesses, too. After this happened, any small piece of judgmental personality I had was now all but gone.

As a person who struggles with arrogance and pride, the dose of humility was a good thing for me. I now know that there is always someone smarter, brighter, and better at anything that I do. I am perfectly okay with just being one of the people in this world – all struggling together to get better.

What would you say to anyone who has a learning disability?

To the person with the learning disability, I would say this: persevere. Reach out and find out what resources are available to you. Learn to overcome your disability and to focus on your strengths.

You are more than your learning disability. It does not define you. Set your own goals, and go get them.

And, when people say “you can’t” or “you won’t,” use that as fuel. Your self-satisfaction with what you have overcome will be enough, but it never hurts to have some motivation along the way.

In the end, be humble, hardworking, and selfless – the rest will work itself out. And maybe you’ll be famous when Fred interviews you someday, too!

Logo for The Physician Philosopher

Final thoughts

Haha! If only I could make people famous.

Thank you, Physician Philosopher for your sharing your incredible story. A lot of people would have quit. A lot of people would have let their disability define them. You chose another path. I love your advice to anyone with a learning disability: “Persevere. You are more than your learning disability. It does not define you. Set your own goals and go get them.” 

Solid advice.

And I know it isn't easy to implement. You had to work harder than most. You had to spend more time studying and preparing. It took you longer to finish tests. You didn't mention it but I'm sure there was the embarrassment from always being near the last one to finish your exams. Yet, you persevered.

I hope that anyone reading this with any kind of obstacle will take your advice to heart. Persevere. Don't let your problems define you.

Thanks again for sharing your story. It was a great reminder to me to press on toward my goals. I hope it's an encouragement to all who read this inspiring story.

Now it's your turn. What did you like most about TPP's story? How can you find encouragement from it? What adversity or obstacle has held you back? How can you persevere? Let us know in the comments below.