Imagine: You are only six months away from entering medical school, and you’re physically assaulted. During the assault, you suffer a traumatic brain injury. What if I told you, this was only a month after you had been robbed and had a gun held to your head? Afterward, you listen as a neuropsychologist says you should take a year off before starting medical school, or you will surely fail. Later, you’re told to consider a different career track, that medical school will be far too demanding. It would’ve been easy to just give up, all of the excuses had been carefully laid out, but… I didn’t. Four years later, I scored top 10 percentile on both COMLEX Level 2 and USMLE Step 2 CK. I was also accepted to my #1 choice for residency.
Typical Pre-Med Life
This particular story begins sometime in 2013 after I had completed my undergraduate education with a stellar GPA and decent MCAT score. Like many pre-med students, I had opted to take a year off before applying to medical school. During that time, I worked as a full-time Emergency Department Scribe at a level 1 trauma center. The job was amazing; you would encounter every bizarre emergency you could imagine. Some dude shoving a loaded gun up his rear to hide it from the cops was just one example. The entire experience was extremely interesting and served to support my decision to apply to medical school.
I had a few friends go through the same application process. Following their recommendation of being “early and broad,” I applied to about 20 MD schools and 15 DO schools on the first day that applications opened. My application wasn’t like that of a 4.0 or 4.5 Harvard grad. It was one of those nearly 4.0 GPAs that made it obvious that the MCAT was not my best friend. But hey! I have an extensive clinical background and even a publication! Despite popular belief – standardized scores don’t control your destiny. I had no problem making progress. Soon, I was scheduling interviews throughout the Midwest (I’m originally from Michigan), East Coast, and a few in the South. By this time, it was close to the end of September. I planned to interview at the southern schools I didn’t know much about first, then East Coast schools around Thanksgiving/Christmas time because most of my family lives in Rhode Island, and Midwest schools last. I went to two interviews: MU-COM and LMU-DCOM. LMU-DCOM reached out to me a week after the interview to inform me that I had been accepted. I was extremely excited by the prospect of becoming a doctor, but I had more interviews scheduled and wasn’t going to make my decision until it was necessary. Three weeks after all this excitement, the real “fun” started.
Short-Term Setback #1
After working over 40 hours in 5 days, I was looking forward to a night out with friends. I had to work in the morning, so I headed home early. As I walked to my door to put the key in the lock, I was confronted by two hooded men who asked for my belongings. I reached into my pocket and felt something metallic being held to my head; it was a gun. I said, “Please, I’m a student, I don’t have much to give you.” He threw me onto the ground face first, and his friend patted me down as he held the gun to the back of my head and barked, “Don’t you f-ing move, or I’ll blow your brains out.”
I laid there for what felt like a lifetime. I’ve been asked many times what it’s like to stare death in the face. Well, to be honest, I was so shocked my thought process was like this: this guy is tall and obese like most patients at the hospital and probably on some type of drug, I’ll just follow commands and not move. His shorter, thinner accomplice sounded anxious and uncomfortable as he patted me down saying, “Can we get out of here? Let’s leave. We got what we needed. Cards, money… let’s leave.”
He took everything out of my pockets: my phone, my wallet, and my keys to the car and apartment. While he took my things, I just felt lucky that he threw my stomach down in a position similar to how you go through TSA security at an airport with your hands above your head. The positioning hid the brand new Michael Kors watch that I saved for months to buy. I was able to keep my left wrist over the watch. Those were my thoughts. My actions, however, were much simpler. I simply closed my eyes and followed their commands until I felt the heft of the gun pull away from the back of my head. I was left lying on the snowy ground, stripped of my belongings and afraid for my life.
After some time, I got to my feet. The police arrived with their shotguns ready, but the thieves were gone. They let me in my house and said they’d patrol the area for the night. I tracked my stolen phone from my computer and told the cops its whereabouts and was told, “That area is too dangerous for tonight, it was a gang thing.” I respected that, I wouldn’t want a police officer running into a hail of gunfire for a measly iPhone, ID, and $20 cash. I just felt resigned, there was nothing I could do about it now. I’ll admit that I was a little jittery for a few weeks, and had to see a psychiatrist a few times. In the end, however, I accepted that it had happened to me and wanted to do as much as I could to keep it from happening to anyone else.
Later, I left my medical school after an exam to travel back to the area where the robbery had taken place. I was asked by the court to identify the convicts in prison. I was brought into the prison, heckled with unimaginably grotesque insults by the inmates as I was escorted through to the designated area, and asked to stand in front of 10 convicts for identification. One convict, who fortunately wasn’t the convict I was looking for, said, “Pick me, fancy boy, and I’ll eat ya.” All I remembered was a tattoo on the right forearm, and only one of them, the obese one, had it. I pointed him out and got out of there as quickly as possible. A few months later, I heard he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. His accomplice was sentenced to just 2 years. Because, he, unsurprisingly, informed on his friend. I did not suspect that this was only the beginning of my problems.
Long-Term Setback #2
After a 5 pm-1 am shift at the ER a few weeks later, I saw a guy punch a girl and knock her straight to the ground literally right in front of me. I didn’t confront the piece of garbage directly as I saw friends approaching after witnessing the same disgusting act. All I attempted to do was gently help this girl to her feet. As I lifted her hand from the ground, everything went black. I had absolutely no recollection of what occurred after I lifted her hand. My friends told me afterward that the assailant’s accomplice seized me by the shoulders and slammed my body backward and onto the concrete; my head smashed to the ground like a watermelon.
I have a vague memory of going to bed but felt normal upon waking. I had a mild headache, but I was able to eat breakfast, smile, and felt surprisingly well. “Dude we thought you were dead for a minute last night,” my friends said over and over in different ways, and we laughed together. Everything felt normal until around 4 pm; 16 hours after my head hit the concrete. My headache worsened, I became nauseated and began to vomit as the world started spinning. I grabbed onto my friend, who noticed I was walking erratically and asked him to take me to the ER. Fortunately, it was the same ER I worked at. The triage nurse knew me and sensed that something was off. I was taken in immediately.
My vitals were stable. My mental state was not. I told them my story like I was fine and survived it without injury. But I was obviously affected and slurring my speech. The doctor noticed this right away. From what I’ve been told (my memory of that day is still severely limited), a doctor who was familiar with me walked into the room and heard me speak. He wasted no time. and wheeled my bed out of the room and personally pulled me into the CT scan. What did the scan show?
It’s just as you suspected, future doctor: a large brain bleed. An epidural hematoma and a subdural hematoma, plus a subarachnoid hemorrhage with a temporal bone fracture with, fortunately, minimal midline shift. I experienced what you learn about an epidural hematoma in med school: the “lucid interval.” Less than 2 hours away from a coma or death is what my neurosurgeon told me. He performed an emergency craniotomy and excavated the build-up of blood from the torn middle meningeal artery. The official surgical document stated, “We opened up the cranium and the middle meningeal artery was shooting profusely.” The blood was drained to relieve pressure on my brain. I awoke in the neuro ICU with a shunt in my head, wondering what my life would become.
The next few days weren’t easy. I remember that I couldn’t stand up on day two, and needed the help of two nurses. Not being able to do anything on my own for the first three days following surgery was discouraging. But, I knew if I gave up right then and there and didn’t go through therapy without giving it my all, I would never be the same. I tried my best and excelled in every exam that they gave me. By day five, I was walking up and down the stairs with only minimal assistance. I eventually passed all the neurological exams. On day 6, I was discharged. I had multiple medical appointments following this injury. Most of these appointments went exceptionally well, and the physicians encouraged me to continue pursuing my dream.
I canceled the rest of my interviews. I was stuck at home with terrible headaches. Going through that with PT, OT, and speech therapy was just too much to continue. I committed to LMU-DCOM at this time because I knew, even amidst the agonizing headaches, dizziness, and routine struggles, I could complete medical school. All this testing and work aimed at ensuring I remained the same person continued for several months. In May 2014, approximately 3 months before starting medical school, I felt that I was back to normal. I had an appointment scheduled with a neuropsychologist who was to clear me to resume normal activities. This man, with a Ph.D. and MD in neuropsychology, didn’t try to sugarcoat anything. He told me quite directly: “You will not make it in medical school. You’re too slow at recalling objects and your short-term memory is poor. You have trouble with spatial organization as well.” As I left his office, I told this doctor that I was grateful for his time and appreciated his assessment. I then told him I’d send him a copy of my diploma when I graduated from med school.
And on to medical school I went.
Alex’s remarkable story is far from over. Stay tuned to read part two of this series! See how Dr. Lake made it through medical school and how he’s doing now. For more details, click here to watch his story on @FoxNews.