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Matched for Success

Surprisingly, Kofi Essel, a fourth year medical student at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), was able to sleep through the night, March 16. But the next morning, when he entered an infectiously energetic Ross Hall auditorium packed with his classmates and professors, the nerves began to set in.  “Once I saw everyone there, it became real,” he said. “It was tangible, it was exciting.”

It was Match Day, the day when more than 16,000 fourth year medical students across the country learned where they would be spending the next three to seven years in residency. The much-anticipated event, which occurs on the third Thursday each March, is inarguably the most significant day in a medical student’s — and a doctor’s — career.

“Unlike most fields, after four years of medical school, you are still not close to being done,” explained Jim Scott, M.D., professor of Emergency Medicine and former dean of SMHS.  “In some ways, where you do your residency is actually more important to the type of doctor you are going to be than where you went to medical school.”

In the many months prior to Match Day, students toiled away on applications and interviewed for residency slots at institutions across the country. They then submitted their top choices to the National Residency Matching Program (NRMP), which uses a computer system to “match” students to programs based on their rankings and those of the hospitals.

As per rules set by the NRMP, students cannot open the letters stating their matches until noon on Match Day. So when the day arrives, the final countdown begins. To pass those tedious morning minutes, SMHS hosted a ceremony for the students and their supporters during which the letters containing the matches were distributed. As the clock ticked and hearts pounded, students huddled close to their families and friends. Some playfully held their letters to the light, hoping to catch a preliminary glimpse of what their future may hold.

“I’m petrified!” said Tara Harris, one of several Obstetrics/Gynecology students who sported a red fanny pack, the trademark accessory of their advisor, Charles Macri, M.D., professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “Most people have something in mind that they really want to see, but I kind of want to go to all of them!”

Finally, it was noon. Students tore into their envelopes, releasing a flood of bright green letters, shrieks, camera flashes, hugs, and tears.

"On behalf of the university administration and the medical center administration and all of the faculty, we are very proud of you," said Jeff Akman, M.D. '81, interim vice provost for health affairs and dean of SMHS. “You did great. You have gotten into some terrific programs.”

“We’re going East!” exclaimed Antonella Bollettino, who was matched to an Internal Medicine residency at Rhode Island Hospital/Brown University along with her fiancé, Sean Fine. The pair, who met during their first year at SMHS and will be married next month, entered into a “couples match," an option that links their submissions to ensure placements in the same city, and ideally, the same program. Because Bollettino is from New Jersey and Fine is from California, the match settled a common couple’s dilemma: whether to move closer to her family or his.

“Baylor!” cheered Harris, who matched to the reputable Houston medical college. “I’m very happy,” she said. And her husband, whose family is from Texas, was too.

Overall, the class matched at dozens of prestigious institutions around the country, including the Mayo School of Graduate Education, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Stanford University, and Massachusetts General Hospital. Eighteen students will continue their training at GW.

Internal Medicine was the most popular field for GW students, followed by Obstetrics/Gynecology, Pediatrics, and Anesthesiology. Seven students will fill Family Medicine residencies, contributing to an encouraging national trend of more primary care matches. According to the NRMP, the number of U.S seniors matched to Family Medicine positions rose by 11 percent over 2010.

Essel, who was matched to his first choice, Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., represents one of the GW students pursuing a career in primary care. Children's National, he said, is the perfect fit for his interest in community pediatrics.

“Through outreach education and family counseling, I hope I can help to teach children how to get to the next level in life — that's what people did for me when I was growing up,” said Essel, who was born in Essex, East London and raised in a single-parent household in Littlerock, Arkansas. “I am so grateful to the people who lifted me up when I was growing up. Now I get to give that back.”