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John Hallett

Match Day 2019

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 in Montana.

On his journey, he gained insight that has helped guide his career.

Most important, 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 professional balance.

“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 upstream issues.”

Burnout, now 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 doctor.’”

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 Montana.

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.

“Those experiences 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.”