(May 27, 2011) David Mendel has flown fighter jets and traveled the world for United Airlines. He’s commuted between Ohio, California and Colorado for job and family, and learned to pilot and train others on new aircraft.
Recently a friend asked for some advice about entering medical school as an older student.
“I want to be encouraging, but honestly it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Mendel, 49, says a little ruefully. “And I’ve gone through survival training with the military – and resistance (POW) training. This is harder.”
Flying planes is something Mendel knew he wanted to do since he was a first-grader living in Toledo, Ohio. The idea of becoming a doctor was more of an evolution. A friendship with a flight surgeon in the military triggered some interest early on. Later, when he became an instructor of T38 supersonic jet trainers, he began teaching aerospace physiology - outlining the effects of flying on the human body and mind – and the idea crept back in.
Several years later, some medical problems were threatening his aviation career. He entered medical school at the age of 46, and the specialty of anesthesiology seemed like a natural fit because of its similarities to flying.
“In general, anesthesiologists like aviation, they see themselves as being similar to pilots," he says, explaining some overlaps: the reliance on instruments, the emphasis on teamwork and cockpit leadership, and the similar phases of the work: takeoff (induction/intubation), cruise (operating procedure) and descent/landing (arousal/extubation).
“I think my background helped me get the residency,” he says.
He’ll be returning to Toledo, where his father still lives, for the first year of his residency. From there, he’ll go to Ohio State in Columbus.
Mendel says he is the oldest student in his graduating class “by far.” His years as a pilot and his background in electrical engineering were helpful in getting into medical school, but there were problem areas as well.
“It’s been a struggle for me, and I don’t think it’s about my age,” he says, explaining, “I have a good engineering brain, but not a good memorizing and speed reading brain. “
He says the MCAT exam students take to apply to medical school is a good example.
“On the MCAT, two of three areas are reasoning or problem solving. I’m good at that. But the one that is probably the best predictor for medical school is verbal reasoning - it’s speed reading. I did so well on the others that my overall score was high. But speed reading and memorization is really what med school is.
“People used to tell me, don’t worry, in the real world you can look it up. But you can’t look it up during a test.”
He recognizes that being an older student was helpful in some ways, especially when he looked at younger students who were having babies, raising children, getting married. The stability he earned from his first career was helpful – his son is in college and he is not saddled with debt from an undergrad degree as well as medical school.
“But I am at the point in my life where I’m concerned about staying up all night,” he says.
He credits his fellow students, family and friends for keeping him on track when the load was heavy.
“I’ve been impressed with the caliber of people walking around here. There is a very high level of dedication, generosity, professionalism. They’ve got big hearts. Looking back, I’m amazed by the caliber of people here.”