“Becoming a physician is a marathon.” – Dr. Bennett
Karen Thomas, certified broadcast meteorologist, has had over 30 years of experience working with companies like NBC 10 and Fox 29 in the Philadelphia and Harrisburg area. She is currently the business owner of Presentations Now, LLC, where she coaches students and young professionals on how to find their own voice. In this interview, she discusses her journey breaking into the television industry after her undergraduate years and how that sparked the creation of her own consulting firm.
Q: What would you tell your past self who is applying to medical school?
“I came into Penn knowing that I wanted to go into medicine. I needed to complete the required courses for med school. There is no ‘pre-med major’, so instead I looked at where the medical prerequisites fit in with different majors to figure out what major to pursue. I took PSYCH 101, a popular course back then, which led me to major in biological basis of behavior (i.e. neuroscience today).
One of the things to remember is being at a place like Penn is reflective of how well you did in high school. However, being at Penn is not a ticket that will make the rest of your life simple. You really need to succeed at Penn and utilize all the resources offered. You need to do well in your science classes and on the MCAT, and have extracurriculars. But I think the committees are pretty good in parsing out what’s real and what’s not real. If you occasionally volunteer during your junior year at the hospital, it is not the same as somebody who has been taking care of a family member in hospice every single weekend. But if you find something you are really passionate about, whether it’s science related or not, make sure to follow through with it.”
Q: Do you recommend taking a gap year or applying straight to medical school?
“I took the MCAT my junior year and then I applied my senior year. It’s worth noting that no one is going to hold your hand. No one is going to seek you out and make sure you are doing everything you can for your med school application. You can be completely left behind and have no idea. In fact, I almost had to take a gap year without even wanting to. I didn’t know about the committee letter from the pre-health advisors until very late. Thankfully I made the deadline. So, even if you do well academically at Penn, if you are not organized, you can get left behind.
If you do take a gap year, you would take the MCAT in your senior year. During your gap year, you might decide to work. You should find a job that is flexible, so you can attend your med school interviews. In my opinion, a good use of a gap year would be to study abroad. It is the one opportunity that you have in your life to do something like that for pre-med students. Whatever reason it may be, people ultimately take a gap year because they just need a break. Becoming a physician is a marathon. It is hard, but if you are feeling too burnt out already, then I think you need to see if medicine is really for you.”
Q: What attracted you to the field of nephrology (i.e. focused on the kidneys)?
“Third year [of med school] is when you decide what specialty to pursue. I was more interested in medicine over surgery. I figured that I was not the type to work with my hands in an operating room. I ended up applying for medicine and matched in internal medicine over at Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Residency is the first time you apply everything you have learned. As I was helping patients, I became interested in cardiology and nephrology which are subspecialties of internal medicine. Ultimately, I decided to do nephrology because I was able to do all the stuff I liked about cardiology, while also focusing on electrolytes and fluid homeostasis, which is a combination of physics, chemistry, and biology. Within nephrology there are further specialties. An example is a transplant nephrologist specialized in people who have received kidney transplants or are getting a kidney transplant. In addition, they are trying to create specialties such as interventional nephrology, where you do procedures on patients in need of dialysis, or critical care in nephrology so that a nephrologist could run an intensive care unit.”
Q: What are the benefits of joining a medical group practice instead of being affiliated with a hospital?
“It is becoming rare to see a primary care doctor that owns their own practice; it is hard to have a small business. One thing to think about is if you want to do research or clinical work. If you are looking for real clinical medicine, maybe escaping some of these large academic medical centers is much smarter. I looked at some jobs with private practices and ended up choosing the one that I’m in now. The big difference between working for a private practice versus a hospital is that in a private practice setting you are your own boss. I am not accountable to anyone but the patients that I see. I have better compensation, greater say in vacation time, and hiring/firing processes. But there is risk involved. Some private practices, depending on the specialty, have been bought out by large medical organizations. People went from owning a private practice to being employees of these university hospitals.
Overall, I like being in a private practice. In terms of academics, I still can work at a few different hospitals with residents/medical students and help them with their research posters or projects. I also give lectures. So, working in a private practice can be similar to working for a hospital.”
Q: How has the pandemic impacted your daily work schedule?
“The pandemic has been bad. The real heroes are the nurses in the ER and the ICU. In regards to my work, I still see patients in the office who suffer from chronic kidney disease or autoimmune-type kidney diseases. I see them in the office and the hemodialysis center three times a week. There are also patients with kidney issues that I see in the hospital. There are a lot of people in the hospital and patients who need their outpatient dialysis no matter what. The real adjustment in the office was doing telemedicine. We thought that it would be smart to do it during the few months we were not seeing anyone in the office. We would connect with patients via video or phone call.
At first, it was nice since I could sit and do everything from one spot, but then it became depressing. I wanted to physically see people to help them. I think patients also have an expectation that they see a doctor who examines them, listens to their heart, etc. You miss a lot when you do not physically see people. Eventually we transitioned to seeing patients in the office and in the hospital. I would talk to them on the phone prior to entering the room with a N-95 mask and face shield. That way I am in there for a minimal amount of time. Ultimately, the pandemic made me realize how much I prefer physically seeing people and how much more rewarding/fulfilling it is. Hopefully the pandemic is not swaying anyone away from studying medicine.”