Anderson University College of Arts and Sciences
Dr. Donovan Griggs: From AU to Harvard Medical School
Upon his graduation from medical school, Dr. Donovan Griggs began his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), a teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School.
He recently became a junior resident at Massachusetts General, and is preparing for a unique leadership role at the renowned hospital. Dr. Griggs is drawn to the educational aspect of medicine and hopes to pay it forward by some day teaching future medical students.
Bring us up to date on what’s going on in your life.
I am actually about to finish up my intern year as a junior resident. I am finishing my first year of residency, which is crazy to think about, but I’ll be done.
What has this past year been like?
It’s been a huge learning curve. Practicing medicine and studying it are two wildly different things. The way you interact with patients and have to think about realistic decisions, like you can’t just order any tests you can think of. You have to be pragmatic in how you do things, but it’s been fun. There’s definitely a lot of work that goes into it. Doing 24-hour calls and staying up all night, then having to present all the patients you admitted overnight. Even when you’re not on 24-hour call, sometimes you work a 15-hour day, then you have to go back the next day. Working almost 80 hours a week can be really tiring but it’s rewarding at the same time.
When you’re on an inpatient service, that is when people get admitted to the hospital. For example, let's say a 70-year-old gentleman has pneumonia and he has to be in the hospital, you’ll take care of him on an inpatient unit. So, when you’re doing that kind of service, you’ll be working usually six days and you get one day off.
Tell me about what you’ll be doing as a junior resident.
Normally the way it works is you are an intern and you have patients and you carry those patients. You write the note, you see them, you talk to the attending or supervising resident and you tell them about the patient, you carry out the plan and give them their antibiotics or whatever they need. And that’s it.
Massachusetts General Hospital has I think probably the only setup of this system that I've ever seen in the country. They have something called the Bigelow system, and they basically split up the work that one intern would do into four people, so one person will write a plan for the day and come up with what they’re doing for each patient, and then another person will actually be doing all the tasks that need to be done for the patient, so calling a consult for the patient, saying they have a heart problem and need to be seen by cardiology, so they’ll have to call that consult, or putting in different orders for all of the patients they need to have done. It’s a system where you split up one person’s job into many people and you have to work as a team to figure it out, and the junior resident normally supervises that team. It’s not the senior resident or the attending resident, but the junior resident. This program is special because in a few months I’ll have to lead a team of interns to do that.
How did you become interested in medicine?
I always liked science, and in a way, I knew I wanted to do something like that, be a scientist or work in that kind of field. As I got older, I also realized I also wanted to help people. There’s something beautiful about the combination of those two things that you can get in medicine. You can speak to people in a clinic and think about problems and go through diagnostic methods and run tests. It’s a way to think about things in a way that you get to combine many things that you enjoy, and that’s kind of what brought me to medicine.
One thing that happened was my great grandmother died when I was pretty young. I was living in Ohio at that time. I always wondered about the thought process go into caring for someone who is critically ill? How do you take care of a person that’s sick and dealing with family members and discussing these really difficult issues? That was kind of a pivotal moment for me, thinking about medicine as a career.
Are there any doctors or others working in healthcare who inspired you?
My pediatrician or nurses—there are a lot of people who inspired me to want to choose a career where you could be friendly to a child or see someone’s loved one and say “how are you doing?” and be able to check up on them. There have been people in my life that lit a fire in me, I guess.
How did you learn about Anderson University?
I was applying to college and I played the trumpet and I initially thought I was going to try to get a music scholarship, so I looked at a few places and I saw Anderson. I thought their music program was really cool, and so I applied for the scholarship; I had to go down and audition for it. I was thinking, the campus is really beautiful and I like the faculty here. I ended up getting the scholarship and so I thought this is a really pretty place and it’s nice. I’m going to give it a shot and I ended up loving it.
You were actively involved in music at first, then shifted over to a pre med path. Tell me how that happened.
I double majored in music and biology my first year. So, I was trying to do both, which was not a smart idea. I don’t suggest anyone do that unless you have a lot of time on your hands (laughs), because I figured out, I would graduate in five or six years if I did that. So, I dropped the music major after the first year and then just focused on biology at that time.
What are some ways you feel your Anderson University education helped you through medical school and continues to benefit you?
The teachers there were so influential. Just the passion they have for teaching was something that I really loved seeing. Dr. Kozel, who used to be the chair of the department, taught a lot of ecology classes. He was so focused on making sure that we not only learned, but we got enjoyment out of learning and he excited a passion for curiosity and knowledge, which I think is something that in medicine you definitely need—not just for your patients but just for your own fulfillment in a way, and I think that’s something that’s always inspired me. And Dr. Koenigstein, she was constantly helping me even after graduating, writing me recommendation letters to get into med school, and I think there’s something to be said for someone who doesn’t give up on someone. Dr. Abromovich, the organic chemistry teacher. She was so wonderful. I was struggling in organic chemistry at the time, but she was always pushing me to keep going, to not give up. I always remember that and think fondly about that.
What are some other memories that really stand out from your time at Anderson?
For one thing, I made lifelong friends who I still keep in contact with to this day and they’re my closest friends.
What were some other experiences that you had at Anderson University that impact you to this day?
I went to Wales while I was in a brass quintet at Anderson. I think that the more experiences you’ve had, the better off you’ll be, not just in the career you choose but in life. I think that I would rather talk to the man who’s been to a hundred countries than the man who’s lived to a hundred years, just because your experiences are what shapes you; it’s not just about where you live and who you’re surrounded by. It’s really what you’ve been through, and I think Anderson gives a great opportunity to do that.
Is there a particular area of medicine you’re most drawn to?
I’m thinking about oncology. I’ve done a couple of rotations with the inpatient oncology unit, and each time I just get to build relationships with patients who are really sick. Those are some of the sickest people in the hospital that aren’t in an intensive care unit. Having to go to their room every day and talk to them and speak to their families about what’s going on, it for one makes me appreciate the time I get to spend with them. When you speak to people about their lives and not just the illnesses they have, you find out that people are interesting. The medicine of oncology is very interesting. The different therapeutics they have now to treat cancer are really incredible. It’s almost a miracle that we get to experience and I really enjoy that relationship with patients.
How do you feel about how African Americans are represented in medical fields?
I’ve seen some statistics recently that fewer than five percent of all physicians in the United States are African American. Then around two percent are male, so I am one of very few people who are doing what I’m doing right now. It’s such a hard place to get to because medicine is really not always how good you are and what you know, it’s who you know. And when you’re coming from a background where you don’t have a lot of close family members or friends who are physicians and in the medical field, it’s hard to get plugged in.
What career advice would you offer someone wanting to enter medicine?
Networking is really important. Getting to know people who are physicians, regardless of who they are is important. Shadowing physicians is so important. You can build a relationship just by watching what they do and if you show that you’re interested, they’ll want to mentor you and help you, which is something I did for years before I got accepted. Then working really hard in undergraduate school so that you have the GPA and the MCAT score and the recommendation letters that will make you look the best, because that’s what all medical schools are looking for.
I applied to more than 40 schools. The first time I didn’t know what I was doing and I applied to five or 10 schools then realized you really have to branch out, but it’s really expensive to apply, so that can limit how many schools you apply to. You have to prioritize which places you’re going to apply to and think about how good my chance is of getting into that school, because if it’s not that great I might not need to apply there, because it might be a waste of money.
What advice would you give someone who plans to apply to medical schools?
One thing is your grades have to be great. The other thing is you should be well-rounded. People who don’t have anything else about them other than their grades are not good candidates. You have a 4.0 and a 527 on your MCAT, but you don’t do anything else. You’re not involved in sports or music or traveling around the world. Whatever it is, you have to have something that’s not just science or whatever your college degree was. You need to be a well-rounded person, which is really important now that I’m working on a team with different people. If I had to work with people who acted like robots, not only would it be a detriment for team building, but also patient care, because patients don’t want to speak to robots, they want to have fulfilling relationships with people. I do think that’s important and I see now why that’s something that was really stressed.
Does your faith play a role in your care for patients?
I think so. It doesn’t come off as often as I would like it to, but sometimes people will hint that they’re praying for recovery or that they want a miracle to happen. You always have to be willing to help someone kind of lean into that when they want it. You can’t just ignore it or say, “I’m not going to get involved on that level with you” because that’s part of the process of getting better. When those moments come up, I enjoy that, because I get to share how I feel along with them.
At the end of the day, what gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment?
I like knowing that I made a difference in someone's life. Not even the patients that I interact with, but just knowing that I could do something for someone, regardless of what it was. That always makes me happy. Sometimes we have our own clinics. We have our panel of patients and when I can walk out the door and I’m on my way home and I call my parents to talk to them, it’s nice to think about my day and know that I thought about their problems and made some sort of change that was meaningful for them. That always makes me happy and fulfilled.