Persistence pays off … Med student realizes his dream

NOSM graduate Derek Handley


Twenty eight year old Derek Handley of Sudbury (formerly North Bay) knew he wanted to work in health care at age 15, after observing a neurologist treat his sister who had been diagnosed with MS. “I don’t even recall his name, but his demeanor made such an impression on me, he took the time with us, he was like a rock star to me! It was such a positive experience. From then on I started taking all the right courses to lead me in the direction of becoming a brain surgeon,” recalled Handley.

But over the years he discovered that getting into med school required not only serious smarts and a couple of university degrees under his belt, but also persistence and determination. In fact, Handley applied five times to NOSM before he was finally accepted. On the road to acceptance he completed a degree in Bio-Medical Sciences at the University of Ottawa and when his efforts to get into medical school failed (“my grades were good but not med school good”) he returned home to North Bay and obtained a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Nipissing University.

Foot in the door

Meanwhile, keeping in mind the value of having a foot in the door, Handley spent his summers working at the North Bay hospital where a new building was in the works. He wasn’t above taking on daunting tasks like labeling and categorizing every individual key to the new hospital building. “Staff used to tease me about sitting for hours counting and recording keys, and I would joke that one day I would be working on their brain so they better be nice to me,” chuckled Handley. His steadfast persistence to get the task done was perhaps symbolic of what lay ahead.

During his summers at the hospital Handley also took advantage of an unstructured shadowing program, spending ‘a day in the life of’ the hospital’s physicians.

“They knew I hoped to be a doc, so I think they were kind of grooming me for a future position,” Handley recalled with a chuckle. It made his desire to get into medical school that much stronger.

In 2015, after managing the hospital gift shop at the North Bay Regional Health Centre for a year, Handley received the e-mail that changed his life. He had finally been accepted into the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.

“It was such a defining moment the morning I got that email. I actually threw my phone across the room,” he laughed. “I was over the moon! That acceptance email grounded me over the years. I kept it flagged at the top of my inbox and when I started having doubts I would look at it and remind myself of the years of hope (to get into NOSM) and the let downs, and then that incredible day when I received it.”

Handley said his biggest challenge was getting accepted into med school; his next biggest challenge once he got there was staying motivated and focused.

“I worked a lot harder than ever before, and felt that I was constantly under scrutiny to ensure my knowledge was up to date. It was an entirely different beast than anything I was used to. It can get overwhelming and you can find yourself in a dark place. You have to keep your mental health in check.  While my friends were moving around, travelling, or getting married and having children I had to remind myself I was slugging it out at med school for a reason, and about everything I had done to get here.”

Brain Surgeon versus Family Doc

Handley always believed he was going to be a surgeon, but that changed in his third year at NOSM when he did his eight month clerkship in Kapuskasing, a small Northern Ontario community where he lived as a child.

He was shadowing family practitioner, Dr. Danelle Martin and said he was extremely impressed by her patient centredness, her forward thinking and how she always took the time to listen to her patients and acted accordingly.

“I started to realize that this might be a better fit for me. It suits my personality. I enjoy talking to people and hearing their stories. I realized I would not get enough of that in a surgery related career because surgeons are so busy and focused on one specialty. So I switched gears.”

Handley said he believes there is a perceived prestige that comes with being a surgeon/specialist versus a family doctor. He admits he had that two-tiered attitude but as a result of his experiences at med school that changed.

“As a family doc it can be challenging as you have to know about a lot of different things and you are always problem solving and sometimes making quick decisions. When I was seeing patients (in Kapuskasing) it felt very natural to me,” said Handley. “It suits me and some of my goals like settling down and having a family.”

Handley wrote his final medical exam this spring and has now been accepted under the Canadian Residency Matching Service (CaRMS) to begin his residency in Sudbury, beginning in July.



Filed in: Education, News

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