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Becoming a Physician Amidst a Pandemic — Why Match Day Has More Meaning in 2021

match day countdown

On the third Friday of March each year, medical students across the country find out where they’ll spend the next phase of their medical career as residents. This year, 147 medical students from the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) at the University of Pennsylvania celebrated the reveal of their residency placements.

Penn’s unique Match Day ceremony was a hybrid celebration — some students stayed home with family and found out their results virtually, while a small group of matching students celebrated in person on campus. The annual ceremony is the culmination of a process that matches graduating medical students with a residency program for future training, and for many, the event holds more meaning than graduation. The lengthy process involving advising and mentoring, applications, interviewing (this year, virtually), and then a ranking process where students rank programs and programs rank students. For many, they’ll be spending the next three to five years — if not longer — at these programs, where they’ll continue to train and hone their skills as medical doctors.

“The pandemic was a monumental challenge for the world, and its effects on the application process pale in comparison to what the world has had to go through. But it was reassuring to see how quick programs were able to adapt so applicants could get an inside-view of their programs,” shared Divyansh Agarwal, a sixth year MD-PhD student at PSOM. “Despite the virtual nature of the processes, by the end of interview season I was able to get a good appreciation of each residency program. I could tell how well the residents got along together, sense their camaraderie, and their happiness came out as I spoke with people about their programs.”

The introduction of virtual interviews also significantly reduced financial burdens for students, and alleviated the challenges that come with having to travel across the country during the interview process.

The pandemic not only shifted the resident interview season, but inspired medical students as they witnessed their mentors and teachers step onto the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19.

“Ultimately, the pandemic kind of refocused what is important for me and what I want to achieve by being a doctor,” Sophia Yapalater, a fourth year PSOM student, told MedPage Today.

Yapalater originally wanted to become an obstetrician-gynecologist. But during the pandemic she experienced working with families of COVID-19 patients through Penn’s Medical Student Visitation Program (MVP). Through her work with MVP, she was able to recognize that throughout her experience at medical school, she found the most fulfilment working with patients and their families during serious illness and end-of-life. The pandemic, and working with mentors in Internal Medicine, exposed her to the large amount of advocacy and research happening and needed in the field, and six weeks before applying to residency programs she decided to specialize in Internal Medicine.

On Match Day, Yapalater, surrounded by her family, husband, and close friends on Zoom found out she’d continue her career at Penn, matching into Penn’s Internal Medicine program. “I feel so lucky to be able to celebrate this moment with the people who helped me get here,” Yapalater shared.

“We are so proud of and grateful for the class of 2021 and their commitment to education, patient care, the advancement of society, and engagement in our community. They are resilient, powerful, and impactful as individuals and as a group,” said Suzanne Rose, MD, MSEd, senior vice dean for Medical Education.

Rose also expressed her deep gratitude for the team at PSOM who helped support students through the process this year, “where everything has been challenging and different” — among them DaCarla Albright, MD, associate dean for Student Affairs and Wellness, and to Prithvi Sankar, MD, special advisor to the class of 2021.

allie and flo

While many celebrated virtually and at home with their friends and family, Albright and Sankar joined a group of students who chose to celebrate in person at PSOM’s Jordan Medical Education Center —including roommates Allie Sperry and Florence Porterfield. The socially distanced event was live-streamed from PSOM. After virtual speeches from PSOM’s leadership, a countdown at noon, and pops of confetti, students ripped open their envelopes to find out where they’d continue their medical careers.

Sperry jumped out of her seat as she read her result: Penn’s Integrated Cardiac Surgery Program, her first choice. Porterfield, one seat next to Sperry, had a video call with her family as she announced she matched to Massachusetts General Hospital’s Internal Medicine program, her first choice as well.

“I am just so happy and excited; this day has been amazing. It honestly feels like the best day of my life,” Porterfield said.

Porterfield isn’t the only PSOM student making the trip to Boston, Massachusetts. Agarwal, the MD-PhD student, celebrated his Match Day at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center with one of his surgical mentors and a family member, and is thrilled to continue in his training at Massachusetts General Hospital in General Surgery. “I’m really excited I matched at my number one choice, and I feel really lucky. I could not have done this without those who have supported me over the past few years as an MD-PhD student,” Agarwal shared. “I want to be an excellent, compassionate surgeon, but I also want to use my MD-PhD training and research experience to push the boundaries of surgery and to ask innovative questions that could have a lasting impact on surgical care.”

Porterfield also expressed gratitude for her mentors and teachers. Through her experience in the Internal Medicine rotation, she found her calling. “I am just so grateful,” Porterfield said. “Now I’m excited to be a doctor, I can’t believe it’s actually happening!”

Along with Porterfield and Agarwal, PSOM’s matching students will be traveling to 22 states for their residency programs. But almost 40 percent of PSOM’s matching students, including Sperry, will be staying in the state of Pennsylvania, with 47 students staying in the Penn family for residency at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Hospital, the Scheie Eye Institute, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Sperry came into medical school with an inkling that she’d want to be a cardiac surgeon, but that decision didn’t solidify until her third year of medical school in clerkship. Her first day in the operating room with cardiothoracic surgeons, she witnessed a nine-hour case. “In nine hours I watched surgeons change and save a person’s life, and from that moment on I knew there was nothing else I could do. I knew I wanted to be a cardiac surgeon,” Sperry said.

From day one of expressing interest in cardiac surgery, Sperry found herself surrounded by mentors who encouraged her every step of the way. One of her mentors, Michael Acker, MD, chief of Cardiovascular Surgery, made her Match Day even more memorable by giving her a call to congratulate her on the news and welcome her to Penn’s program.

“This was so far beyond what I could have imagined,” Sperry said. “The mentors that I’ve had here have just been so supportive. There aren’t many women in heart surgery and to feel so accepted here at Penn, so mentored, to be so invested in, and to have them believe in me enough to want me to stay here for my training for the next eight years, it’s just indescribable.”


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