MED program students taking part in a microbiology lab in June 2018. (Photo by Taylor Knopf)

Deen Garba has wanted to be a doctor since he was 10 years old. But like most kids, the realities of medical school were lost on him. He hadn’t thought about what it would take to actually become a physician.

Deen Garba and Cedric Bright both graduated from UNC’s MED program in 2016 and 1986, respectively. Garba just finished his first year of medical school at UNC. And Bright is now the director of the MED program. (Photo courtesy Cedric Bright)

Fortunately, he got the chance to experience the pace, rigor and sleepless nights of medical school before getting there at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill’s Medical Education Development (MED) Program. It’s a nine-week summer course that gives prospective medical or dental school students a taste of what professional school will be like with classes in gross anatomy, cell biology, microbiology and biochemistry.

Of the 80 to 90 students attending the program each summer, the majority are from rural or underserved communities. A good number of program graduates end up practicing in primary care in parts of North Carolina that need it most.

Many return home

About 3,000 students have gone through the MED Program since it began in 1974, including the current director Cedric Bright. He said some faculty members have taught in the program for more than 30 years.

“MED is a family,” he said. “Once you go through this crucible of fire, you come together melded like steel.”

For decades, the program was funded by grants. But in the last few years, the UNC medical and dental schools took on financing the MED program. Bright says the return on investment is huge.

(Map courtesy Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research)

While MED program members make up only 1.4 percent of all North Carolina physicians, they account for 12.3 percent of all African-American physicians and 35.9 percent of all American Indian and Alaskan Native physicians practicing in the state, according to a 2014 program analysis by the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

“We know that many of our MED program graduates go back and serve in their communities,” Bright said. “Many of our graduates go to areas where there are health provider shortages and low-resourced communities.”

He also mentors many of the students who come through the program.

“[There’s] the belief that you do four years of college and go directly into medical school. But many people don’t meet that.”

Some have economic difficulties, life challenges or academic setbacks, Bright said.

“There are many roads that lead to medical school, and not all are straight. You can go through the side door, back door, chimney… there are many routes to get to their end destination.”

Because MED program participants are economically disadvantaged, they receive a stipend during the program. Bright said MED students normally would not be able to give up a summer of work to take part in a program like this. He doesn’t want them trying to work while in the program because there isn’t time.

“We want to know what their best looks like when they are fully engaged,” he said. “Let’s just say people don’t get a lot of sleep.”

Fast paced

Garba, who completed the MED program in 2016, said he averaged about five hours of sleep per night. He said he learned how to balance the workload and manage his time better.

MED program students are some of Gina Donato’s favorite, she said. She is a microbiologist at UNC and the director of Microbiology Teaching Laboratories.

MED program students taking part in a microbiology lab in June 2018 at UNC Chapel Hill. (Photo by Taylor Knopf)

“People who do this program all volunteer to do it because the students are great,” she said.

Students will often ask her if MED program courses can be used as credit for undergraduate degrees, but that’s not the point.

“It’s not difficult. It’s not deep, but it’s fast,” she said. “MED students will get a pace that matches what they will see in a professional school. That’s the hardest thing you actually deal with. You miss a week, you miss an entire organ system. It’s that fast.”

Since so many program graduates do practice in underserved areas, Donato said the professors bring up as much as possible that is relevant to those areas.

“We will have cases. One of them right now is a person who is an opioid user and that plays into what that person has,” she said. “Those kind of socio-economic factors will be addressed in case studies.”

But for Garba, the program also helped him “craft his own narrative,” he said.

“As an African-American male, I didn’t have many examples growing up of men who looked like me and were pursuing this path,” he said. “MED allowed me to gain more confidence that I could do it and do it in my own way.”

Garba just finished his first year of medical school at UNC. Though his family lives in Greensboro now, Garba said he hopes to provide medical care to his home country of Nigeria someday.

This story was first published in North Carolina Health News and is republished here with permission.

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