A winding road can serve
up important lessons, John Hallett said, reminiscing on his peripatetic path to
a medical career.
By the time he
reached the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Hallett had been an
organic farmer, Americorps volunteer, ski bum and patroller, restaurant server
and kitchen staff, and public health researcher on the Apsáalooke Reservation
On his journey, he
gained insight that has helped guide his career.
Hallett said, was the realization that attempting to fix too many of the
world’s problems at once almost guarantees burnout. But combining what he calls
the 30,000 foot view with one-on-one interactions can lead to personal and
“The road to medical
school created space to develop as a person and to be involved in the things
that matter to me,” Hallett said.
An early lesson came
after graduating from CU Boulder, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in
geography, participated in the INVST Community Leadership Program and helped
establish an organic farm.
He took a job with AmeriCorps,
working with elementary through high school students on service learning projects.
The students attempted to tackle large scale societal issues playing out in
their community, including support for undocumented students and improving
mental health care.
“I burned out hard,”
Hallett said. “I was working really, really hard and seeing a lot of issues
that those kids were having that I had no ability to change. There were so many
increasingly recognized as moral injury, undermined Hallett’s drive to make a
positive impact. Then, he says, “I wallowed for a bit.”
The year was 2011.
The U.S. economy was gradually recovering from a deep recession, and he
wondered what he could do with a geography degree. A conversation with his
father and a family friend in Wisconsin revealed a new direction.
“He asked, ‘What
would you do if you could do anything?’ And I said, ‘I always wanted to be a
Hallett’s father is a
family physician, and though they never pushed him, his family welcomed the
choice to pursue medicine. He returned to Colorado after mapping out a plan. He
spent several months waiting tables, growing food, and skiing, before joining
the post baccalaureate premedical program at Montana State University.
When choosing to add epidemiology
to his year of core science courses, he found a faculty mentor who invited him
to join a community-based participatory research group looking to improve chronic
illness self-management on the Apsáalooke (Crow) Reservation in southeast
In his work with
Messengers for Health on the Apsáalooke Reservation, Hallett found a balance
between personal satisfaction and professional achievement. Alongside community
members, he co-analyzed health stories, and helped write the NIH grant which
funded the implementation of the Báa nnilah Program, a community-developed
chronic illness self-management intervention.
“The gold standard
for managing chronic illness was developed for the majority culture. We are
very partial to the idea of self-efficacy and individualism – you know, pull
yourself up by your bootstraps, make your own choices.”
In contrast, the Apsáalooke
culture focuses on the self-in-relation with family and community, and values spirituality
and storytelling. Báa nnilah, which roughly translates to “advice for living
given by others”, emerges from the Apsáalooke worldview and includes a
multilayered support system in which people who have experienced chronic
illness share their lessons with newer patients.
“We incorporated gold
standard concepts because they are well-researched and valuable, but we made
sure that the actual intervention itself emerged from community culture.”
Hallett, an inductee
into the Gold Humanism Society, remained involved with the research project during
medical school and it became his mentored scholarly activity.
He credits the
project with giving him a vision of his future.
“I learned before the
crush of medical school how to weave the roles of physician and researcher into
my professional identity. I might not have been able to hold both of them if I
had not already seen how to do it.”
As a family medicine
practitioner, Hallett, 30, will spend four years with the National Health
Service Corps after residency at University of California, Davis Medical Center. To prepare for the work, he spent roughly half
of his third-year clerkships in rural areas. As Medical School Council co-president,
Hallett has been involved with the Innovations and Service Committee, helping
to create monthly service projects in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus
and fund new student developed programs.
are crucial to getting out of our own heads as medical students and remembering
that what we do happens in a community.”
Hallett envisions making
a home in the rural West with his fiancé, Merrill Warren, who works for the
conservation organization, Adventure Scientists. The couple, who plan to marry in
early June, intend to farm and raise livestock, and Hallett expects to embrace
the role of physician-researcher.
“Hopefully, I will be
able to become a community leader in a rural space. Serving patients in clinic
will inform my ability to help make large-scale structural changes in the system.”
He hopes to follow
the advice of a mentor who told him, “Do less, better.”
“The hard time I had
after undergrad wasn’t a deficit, it was a strength. I was able to rebuild what
it meant for me to be an activist, and that rebuilding process was essential.”