Dedicated to service: A path from military to medicine
For the recent Tillman Scholar Michael Weipert, the path to medical school has been a long and winding road.
As a teenager, Weipert knew he wanted to be a doctor, but a sense of service led him to the military, and even further from applying to medical school. By the time he was able to apply, the process seemed muddy, especially since he was on the other side of the world.
As an Eagle Scout in high school, Weipert worked on a project for a local children’s hospital. He made thousands of wooden blocks for a specialized area of the hospital created for children with severe allergies to plastic and dyes – often found in many store-bought toys. He says spending time in the hospital and making a contribution to others’ lives was when he first realized he wanted to be a doctor.
During college, Weipert chose a pre-med major. He also joined the reserves. During a service mission to Russia he became fluent in Russian and volunteered at a children’s cancer hospital.
“While the children’s hospital back home certainly sparked my fire to become a doctor, the mission in Russia really lit a fire in me,” Weipert said. “These kids had nothing to do. The family was in charge of feeding them, so they’d drop off some bread for the week and then have to go back to work. The kids were left to spend their downtime in a big, empty auditorium with nothing but one small T.V. and no chairs. They just sat there, around that one small T.V. So we brought them board games and played with them, and I started juggling and performing magic tricks to entertain them. I just wanted to ease their suffering however we could.”
That trip to Russia did two things for Weipert: solidified his desire to give back and gave him the ability to speak Russian fluently.
Just before Weipert graduated college as a pre-med major, the Twin Towers fell on September 11th. He put everything on hold for graduation and medical school, and commissioned with the U.S. Army. Because he was fluent in Russian, Weipert was able to test out of course work, graduate early with a degree in Russian Studies and enter flight school with the Army, first for helicopters, then for fixed wing aircraft.
It was while flying for the Army that Weipert met Aaron Buzzard, M.D., a military intelligence aviation physician for the Army. It was a relationship that would ultimately help Weipert reignite that fire to become a doctor. Weipert and Buzzard deployed three times together in the Middle East. Weipert began shadowing Buzzard and volunteering in the medical units.
“He was shadowing with me one day while we were deployed and there was a suicide bombing,” Buzzard said. “As they brought in the soldiers, one came to us on a gurney and when we looked under the blanket, his leg had been blown up below the knee and he had a tourniquet on his upper leg.”
“I asked him to hold the leg as we took the tourniquet off,” added Buzzard. “We had to amputate the leg. Weipert continued to help us through other patients that day, and we didn’t lose anyone. Since that moment, he’s been dedicated to becoming a doctor.”
Buzzard retired from the military and is now an emergency physician and Regional EMS Medical Director at the St. Joseph Regional Health Center in Bryan, Texas, and clinical assistant professor with the Texas A&M College of Medicine.
When Weipert set his mind on going to medical school after working with Buzzard, he applied to about 10 schools, mostly in Texas.
But he didn’t get in to any schools. He didn’t even get an interview.
“Weipert is a dedicated kind of guy,” Buzzard said. “But that’s who you want as a doctor – you want someone who will say ‘I’m going to fix this person’ – and he’s got that determination, he’s got all the personality traits of a great doctor.”
That determination caused Weipert to reapply and eventually led him to the office of Leila Diaz, assistant dean for admissions at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. He wanted to know what he needed to do to become a better applicant and hopefully get an interview. She walked him through the admissions process, gave him advice on what he could do to strengthen his application – how he could highlight the extraordinary experiences he had that set him apart from most other applicants.
“I didn’t want to give up, so I called A&M and asked to talk to someone,” Weipert explained. “Leila sat me down and explained everything I’d done wrong and the mistakes I made. She walked me through the correct process and helped me see how I could get my scores up. Things I never would have known if I hadn’t talked to her. I was deployed, so it was pretty tedious to get everything in order.”
“I’ve worked several times with active duty applicants,” Diaz said. “It’s a particularly challenging situation for them since they are often in different places every few years or deployed. It isn’t always easy for them to obtain advising or address the changes they need to make from so far away. They have to be particularly dedicated to the process, but I have seen them make great strides in a reapplication, like Mike [Weipert] did. Helping all applicants is what we do, but it is especially an honor to do what we can to help men and women in the military fulfill their dreams of becoming physicians.”
To improve his application, Weipert studied for the MCAT during and in between flights, and made up about 100 course credits at night to increase his GPA. Weipert worked with Diaz for over a year, getting her advice and expertise on the application process.
“I took classes in Arizona, statistics online while in Iraq – by the time I applied I had credit from about nine different colleges,” Weipert added.
Weipert applied to Texas A&M College of Medicine again, and this time he was invited to interview. But Weipert was deployed, and interviews were conducted in-person on one of the college campuses across Texas. He couldn’t attend.
“I didn’t know what to do, and after I explained my situation and talked with Leila, A&M let me interview by phone,” Weipert explained. “No other school let me do that. I was in the Middle East serving my country, and they understood my situation. I feel like they really took the time to get to know me.”
The hard work paid off and after his interviews, Weipert was accepted to the Texas A&M College of Medicine. But because of his deployment, he had to defer for another year.
It was during that time that Diaz received a package at her office. It was an American flag with a certificate from the U.S. Army. One night while on a mission, Weipert told the story of how Diaz was instrumental in his efforts to apply to medical school to his commanding officer. The officer was so moved by her efforts to help one of his soldiers that he flew a flag in her honor the next day during a reconnaissance mission to find one of the United States’ most wanted fugitives in Iraq. The mission was successful, and the flag was officially named in her honor.
“It’s the most powerful expression of ‘thank you’ that I’ve received,” Diaz said. “It was a complete surprise and helped me see just how much helping someone accomplish their dreams and goals can mean. I worked with Mike [Weipert] for almost two years, much of that time while he was deployed, and we still keep in touch now that he attends school here – it is so humbling to know that I can help someone in this way. Working with applicants like Mike [Weipert] make my career so fulfilling.”
At the Texas A&M College of Medicine, Weipert is now in his third year of medical school and working toward his goal to become a Military Emergency Medicine Physician to provide casualty care for wounded troops on the front lines.
“My ambition in life is to ease suffering and help as many people as I possibly can,” Weipert said.