ADCOM Q&A: Showing Initiative

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Admissions committee members are looking to fill their open medical school seats with leaders, not followers. With that in mind, one question that often gets asked is something to the effect of: What have you done that shows initiative? What did you learn from that experience? 

As a journalist, my entire job was about showing initiative. People rarely handed stories to me; I had to seek them out. Often, I would hear about something in passing, or I would receive a letter to the editor that piqued my interest. But it was up to me to follow up on these tidbits, and to choose an “angle” from which to tell the story.

One story that sticks out in my mind came about because I received a notice from the local state representative’s office that audible crosswalk signals were going to be installed at certain intersections in the town where I worked, thanks to grant money. On its own, that’s not really a story. That’s a bullet-pointed news item among other bullet-pointed news items. This is where my initiative came in: I decided that the way to make this into a worthwhile, newsworthy story was to find someone – someone who was visually impaired – who was going to benefit from these crosswalk signals, and really make it a story about the mobility of a disabled person.

Of course, finding someone who was visually impaired who was willing to talk to me took quite a bit of initiative. I remember it taking a long series of phone calls (and several dead-ends) until someone suggested I talk to a blind woman named Cathy who lived near one of the new crosswalk signals. I set up an interview with her at her apartment. After talking for an hour or so, we ventured outside with her guide dog so that I could get at least an inkling of an idea of what it was like to cross the busy street without being able to see the cars flying by. Cathy told me that while she trusted her guide dog implicitly, the audible signals would make it so much easier and safer for people in her situation to cross the busy intersections where the signals had been installed.

Through my initiative, I took what we in the news business would have called a “news brief” item and put a human face on it. I raised awareness in the local community about why these audible signals had been installed, and who they would benefit – people like Cathy.

I learned from this experience and other similar ones that contextualizing an issue, whatever the issue might be, allows people to relate to it better. When you focus on a person, and how a problem relates to that person, rather than just describe the problem itself, you give your readers the tools to empathize rather than merely intellectualize.

Putting an issue into its context is something that is important in medicine as well. At the clinic where I volunteer, I have seen some physicians describe symptoms, side effects, etc. without connecting them to the actual patient. When this happens, the patient has little frame of reference for what to do with the information. With a diabetes patient, for example, a physician might tell the patient to eat less carbs, but not take the time to figure out what kind of carbs the patient was eating (in order to steer him or her away from those things), or even whether the patient was clear on what types of foods constitute carbohydrates. Other physicians take the same types of information or instructions and put them in the context of the patient’s life, making them more relevant. I translated recently for a physician who was working with a diabetic woman who needed to lose weight. The doctor told the patient that she needed to eat less carbohydrates. She nodded, of course. But the doctor then went the extra step and asked her how many tortillas she was eating every day. His instructions, then, were to cut in half that number as a starting point. This gave the patient something concrete to work with.

Taking initiative – by putting information into a relevant context – was an important part of my job as a journalist, and will continue to be an important part of my future job as a physician. One more reason I am thankful for my past history, and the lessons I have learned.