Year in Training: 4th year medical student
Medical School: Jefferson Medical College
Specialty Interest: Internal Medicine, Endocrinology
Undergraduate Majors: Neuropsychology & Art
Follow Mike: @mike.natter on Instagram
What's your story?
My name is Michael Natter, I am from New York City and am currently in my final year of medical school at Jefferson Medical College (aka Sidney Kimmel Medical College) in Philadelphia. I completed my undergraduate education at Skidmore College in upstate New York where I studied neuropsychology and art. I went on to complete Columbia University’s Post-Bac Pre-Medical program in 2011.
Despite having no doctors in my family, I was always drawn to the medical profession as a kid. That fascination only grew when I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age nine. I gained a deep appreciation for the wonders of the human body as I was forced to learn how to manage my own blood glucose levels. A complex task normally dealt unconsciously by the pancreas, had suddenly become my full-time responsibility. It can be quite challenging.
Medicine is more art than science.
The diseases we learn about in textbooks seem neat and tidy that fit perfectly into the confines of the page, but the patient with that condition is not a two-dimensional list of symptoms; they are a mother working two jobs, they are a college student with an athletic scholarship, they are so much more. As physicians, we need to weave their individual story with the illness narrative and figure out the best way to treat them.
It’s the connection you form with another human being
in their time of need that sets doctors apart.
Dr. William Osler got it right when he said:
“The patient does not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
This is why I fell in love with medicine, the human connection; and that’s how I knew this was my calling. Although my interest in medicine was sparked early, my academic strengths have always resided in the arts and not the sciences. This led me away from pursuing medicine early on, as I believed it was out of my reach intellectually.
In my high school years, seeing a medical student on the subway was akin to seeing an astronaut; a great sense of awe and admiration would wash over me but so would the sinking awareness that I could never attain such goals. I eventually gained academic confidence in myself late in my undergraduate career after excelling in difficult neuroscience based courses.
During my application year, I worked as an ophthalmology technician, which was excellent clinical exposure and a great distraction from the huge pile of rejection letters I was collecting. At the same time, I was working on a personal project: a comic book about a diabetic superhero named ‘Captain Langerhans.’ It had been a goal of mine to make a comic book for recently diagnosed diabetic children to help explain the complex pathophysiology of the disease in a language that they could understand. As luck would have it, I believe that is was that comic book that played a critical role in my acceptance into medical school.
What are your #doctorgoals?
Medical training is a long, arduous, and exhausting road that requires a lot of personal sacrifice. For that reason, it is imperative to keep your goals in constant view and understand the impact and privilege it is to help others as a doctor.
I hope to become not just a good doctor, but the best doctor while still cultivating balance in my life. I aim to treat every patient as an individual and not just “the cirrhotic in room 203.”
Living with a chronic illness, I will always be a patient before I am a doctor, and I hope that perspective will help me to provide the best care I can for my patients.
I am applying to internal medicine and then likely an endocrinology fellowship afterwards. My interest in the field is largely based on my own personal connection to diabetes, but I also prefer an outpatient setting with a longstanding continuity of care.
What's the story behind your drawings?
I was drawing ever since I could hold a crayon. Interestingly, we all were. We all scribbled on our walls, or colored in kindergarten, but then something very sad happens. We stop. I am not sure if it is because art is seen as futile and not productive or if we become too aware of the product of our art being “not good enough.” Whatever the reason, that never happened to me.
I continued to draw throughout high school and then went into college thinking I would possibly pursue it further. My problem was, I didn’t (and still, to some degree, don’t) consider myself especially good. I’ve always believed that to make it in the art world, you need to be one of two things or both of them together:
Insanely talented that your skill far surpasses all others (mine does not)
Your ideas and concepts must be so forward thinking and different that the message can stand alone even if the skill level is lacking (again, not me)
And so, I decided against pursuing a life in the art world, however, I continued to draw anyway. My school notebooks were filled with doodles and drawings along all of the margins. If any topic lent itself to visual representation, I would draw it out.
Then medical school happened and I got scared…
Could I draw my notes out in this environment as well?
I caved into traditional note-taking at first, since ‘doodling’ was seen as procrastination and the stakes were so high, I mean, I’m in medical school, right? We started first year with Anatomy, which is an inherently visual topic, so little by little, I found that I was naturally sketching most of my anatomy notes. Interestingly, as the year went on, my notes became more and more visual and (maybe not so surprisingly) my grades improved as well. When taking an exam, all I could recall were the silly comics on the side of the page and none of the text.
By second year, I had traded in my notebook for a sketchbook
and exclusively took my notes in a visual format.
It made a world of difference for me, and my grades reflected that. What I found most surprising, however, was that on occasion when I would post a doodle to my Facebook page, my peers would approach me after the exam to say that my silly drawings got them some points too!
In addition to serving a tremendous educational purpose, drawing has also helped me cope with the rigorous and isolating lifestyle that medical training requires. I found myself doodling comics about some not- so- stellar performances in the clinic or venting about my shortcomings. It has helped me deal and retain some form of balance.
What I have found is that many medical students share a lot of these same feelings but lacked outlets to express them. We are also in an environment where perfection is expected of us, many of my peers have received nothing but straight A’s their whole lives, so the concept of admitting a mistake or a feeling of inadequacy is not readily expressed. Through my art, I like to think I am able to tap into a lot of those feelings that resonate with so many fellow medical students.
What is like being a type 1 diabetic in medical school and as a future physician?
Diabetes sucks. It is a difficult chronic condition that requires constant monitoring and treatment. That being said, we all struggle with one thing or another in life, a broken pancreas just happens to be mine. Diabetes has done some good things for me too: it helped me realize my passion for medicine, but it also gives me perspective.
I will always be a patient before I am a doctor, and it is that
understanding, which will allow me to connect with my patients.
Sure, there were some tough situations, like on my surgery rotation when I’d need to scrub out of a case in order to treat a low blood sugar and avoid passing out onto the patient on the table. It is hard and will continue to be hard, but the alternative would be to not follow my passion, and I would never allow diabetes to dictate my life in that way.
“Calloused Finger Tips”
Self-portrait by Mike made out of one-touch ultra test strips (commonly used by diabetics to measure their blood glucose levels).
If you had to start medical school all over, what would you do differently?
As a freshmen medical student, I would have started drawing my notes out earlier and not have caved into the pressure “to study traditionally.” There were also many people who told me I had no chance of getting into medical school or that someone like me has no place in medicine. I wish I would not have let those people get to me as much as they did. Gotta drown out the haters. Life has a way of closing doors and opening windows for you, even when you think all is lost.