There were 18,000 fourth-year medical students in the U.S. waiting expectantly the morning of Friday, March 18. Another 17,000 osteopath and international students also spending the morning in suspense. At UConn that day, there were 76. For each of them, there would be one white envelope.
“This is it. This is bigger than graduation,” said Monica Townshend, from Brookfield, Conn.
“It’s the culmination of four or five or six or seven years of work,” said Adam Pennarola, from Newtown, Conn.
“It’s crazy that you can open an envelope and know where you’ll be going for the next four years,” said Adam Kaye, from Wilton, Conn.
Friday, March 18 was Match Day, the day when medical students found out which medical specialty they have been paired with, and at which hospital or clinic they will spend the majority of their waking hours for the next three to five years. The envelopes are missives from The Match, otherwise known as the National Resident Matching Program, the huge national clearing house that pairs aspiring doctors to training programs.
Townshend, Pennarola, Kaye, and the rest of their class were all packed into the medical school lobby by 11:50 a.m., along with a couple hundred of their family members and significant others. Townshend had her fiance on FaceTime; he’s a medical student at the University of Michigan, and they were trying to ‘couples match.’ Couples matching means they get into programs in the same institution or city. He was aiming for plastic surgery, she for pediatrics.
Pennarola wanted to match into an internal medicine program somewhere he could focus on infectious diseases and global health. Kaye was going for emergency medicine, and also trying to couples match with his fiancee, Sarah Conway, a medical student at NYU who was aiming for neurology. They hoped to match into programs in the same city, ideally Boston.
At nine minutes before noon, the magnified click of a microphone was heard.
“Someone told me there was something going on,” quipped Dr. David Henderson, UConn’s associate dean of medical student affairs.
Henderson was a family practice doctor for years in communities from Hartford to Sierra Leone, before joining the UConn faculty 20 years ago. He always gives students the same advice when it comes time to apply to their match wish lists.
“You should not put a program on your list you would not be delighted to be part of,” he says. “That way, no matter at which program you match, you win.”
Henderson knows what it’s like. His match?
“UConn,” he says and smiles. If he had not gone to UConn, he might never have become a professor, never an associate dean. Today he tries to keep it light, knowing that no one is going to remember what he says anyway. They’re all too fixated on their envelope.
Or almost everybody. Not everyone matches on Match Day. Some get an unexpected email or phone call the Monday before. Those unfortunate few who don’t match can choose to do an extra year of study, or call programs that still have openings and work a deal. Some students who don’t match to a medical program don’t want to. They have other plans.
“I’ll practice as an attorney,” said Jeff Wisner. He’s already got a law degree and will graduate from UConn Medical School with his MD this spring. Then he’ll join Koskoff, Koskoff and Bieder in Bridgeport, the firm representing Sandy Hook victims against Bushmaster. He intends to use his education to promote public health. “Every American is entitled to basic health rights and public safety,” he says.
Even though he already knew where he was going after medical school, he came to the Match Day ceremony to support his classmates. He felt the excitement too – you couldn’t help it, it was palpable.
At seven minutes to noon, Henderson handed the mic off to the dean, Bruce Liang. Liang assured the class they were well prepared, and then shared some health tips: don’t forget to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom regularly. Everyone laughed, fiddled with their phones, and glanced at the clock.
At four minutes to noon, Suzanne Rose, senior associate dean for education at the UConn School of Medicine, took the mic and congratulated the students.
At two minutes to noon, Henderson announced that the students could approach the boards and pick up their envelopes. There was a rush toward the boards. “Some schools have a very elaborate match ceremony. We prefer the mosh pit,” he said. Then,
“You may open your envelopes.”
A huge scream arose from the crowd, then quiet, but for the sound of 76 envelopes tearing open. Then more screams: elation, joy, clapping, and hundreds of happy voices. A young man began jumping up and down in excitement. Couples hugged, families shook hands and snapped pictures. Jeff Wisner started shouting out congratulations to his classmates from the stairway landing.
In the bedlam, this reporter did not manage to catch up with all the students. But from across the room, Pennarola seemed pleased. So did Townshend. Kaye and Conway were also happy. And almost every fourth-year student in the room could have echoed one woman’s sentiment as she strode toward the refreshment tables with her friend.
“I never want to do it again, but I feel like a million bucks!”