I recently had the honor of sitting down with Pearl City High School Class of 2004 graduate, Jennifer Thomas who is currently in her fourth year of medical school at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. 

Our interview took place at the Bone & Joint Center at Straub where Jennifer was completing a medical rotation. In just about thirty minutes, I got a good picture of how hard she has worked towards her dream of graduating with a medical degree and the road ahead as she applies for residency in Internal Medicine in the coming months.

Starting out at the University of Hawaii with the intentions of going to nursing school, Jennifer soon realized that medical school would be a better fit after taking a few pre-med courses.  The move will someday benefit our healthcare industry in a way that will manifest itself into the type of healthcare professional and provider that delivers care and compassion to every patient that she comes in contact with.

Jennifer also cherishes her years as a student at Pearl City High School. She played clarinet in the award winning and world renowned PCHS marching band that was highlighted in her junior year as the band traveled to New York City to participate in the Thanksgiving Day Macy’s Parade.  She also had the opportunity to travel to Japan with her Japanese class in her senior year. Jennifer also volunteered with a close network of her classmates in campus beautification projects.

In her free time, (you have to wonder how she has any) Jennifer loves to bake, make crafts, and cut loose (literally) on her Cricut machine that has taken her creativity to another level.

With all of her success, so far, in the medical field with regards to her education and clinical experience, she is first to recognize her parents as the guiding force in stressing the importance of preparing  for the pursuit of higher education and the rewards that it brings. Jennifer Thomas is the product and example of such an effort. 

Best wishes to Jennifer as she moves a step closer to fulfilling her dream!

                                                             Photo by Barry Villamil | [email protected]

Q: How instrumental was your parent’s role in guiding you to pursue a higher education degree after graduation from Pearl City High School?

A: Both my parents pushed me to go to school, mostly my mom. I wanted to go out and do stuff and have fun, but my mom said no, school is really important.

Q: Did you have an interest in the science field while in high school?

A:  I always loved science. Even in high school I loved chemistry and I really liked physics. I always thought math was useless but really in real life, if you don’t know how to do math, you don’t know how to do anything.  If you could only be good at one thing, you should be good at math. The thing about math is that it’s black or white. It’s either right or wrong. You can prove it, or you can’t.

Q: While a student at Pearl City High School, were there any teachers that made an impact on your high school experience?

A: My Japanese teacher Mr. Kaneshiro. He was pretty good. I liked him. He always had funny stories and made it fun. Mrs. Ochiae, who was also my Japanese teacher, took us to Japan. At Pearl City High School, when I was in high school, we traveled. I also went to Japan with the band. I didn’t participate band in my senior year because we went to the Macy’s Parade the year before.  My Interact Club advisor Mr. Tominaga was also really good too. My friends and I in the club painted the lines in the parking lot in our senior year. Those girls are my bridesmaids. We’re still friends.

Q: When did you first become interested in the medical field?

A: Actually in college. I thought I wanted to be a nurse when I went to UH for college. I originally thought, oh, I’ll be a nurse, you know, my grandparents go to the hospital, you see nurses, you’re a girl, and it seems like a perfect fit. After meeting nurses and meeting people who want to go into nursing, I didn’t feel like I fit in with them. I really fit in with people who were in pre-med.

Q: Did you take classes that earned credits for both nursing and pre-med?

A: All the classes that I was taking were pre-med classes, but I was in nursing. I thought if I only do the nursing classes, and let’s say, in two or three years I decide that I don’t want to be a nurse, you really can’t change. You can’t change your mind once you start a nursing track in the beginning of college.  Its specific classes that you take and that don’t really translate into anything if you decide to do something else. I thought I’d go into Biology and be a Biology major, but finish the required nursing classes because all the Biology major classes crossed over for the nursing requirements.

Q: Did you have any opportunities before deciding to apply for medical school to actually receive one-on-one experience with an MD?

A: In my sophomore year of college I ended up shadowing a doctor and it was awesome. Actually it was only for a day but it was a great experience.

Q: What other type of medical industry related experience do you have under your belt?

A:  I did some research at UH, just helped out in the lab for some research experience.  I also volunteered at Shriner’s Hospital for three years in medical records. You really get to see kind of everything when you’re at Shriner’s.  I also worked as a medical assistant and receptionists in a medicine pediatrics office.  I did that for the last two years of college.  At UH I worked as a peer mentor for three years.  Anybody who is interested in getting into a field such as Dentistry, Law, or going to maybe, Ophthalmology school, you go there and we help you get all the prerequisites. For instance, this is what your GPA has to be, these are the kind of classes you need to take, these are the schools you can apply to, and this is how you do it.

Q: Throughout your medical school experience, was there a physician that influenced you to continue on the path to becoming a licensed physician?

A: When I really think back to a doctor that really influenced me to go into medicine, I mean I’ve named my professors and my mom because all those people really did kind of guide me to go into medicine, but the person who really showed me that this is what medicine was about, that this is kind of what you want to be, and the doctor that I’m trying to be like is Dr. Nadine Tennsalle from Queens P.O.B. Dr. Tennsalle is in medicine pediatrics, primary care. I was a medical assistant in her office. She was my mentor.

Q: How has your experience been during your latest rotation at Straub Hospital?

A: It’s been awesome. All the doctors, the nurses, the staff, everybody’s been great. It’s all about the people. They’re real. They really care about the students and they really care about the learning.

Q: Do you have any preferences on where you would like to do your residency?

A:  We have to do residency. It will be in primary care but I’m not sure where, exactly yet? I don’t know if I want to open up my own practice or work for a company like Straub, or Kaiser. Definitely in primary care. I also see that there’s a need on the neighbor islands. I did my family medicine rotation last year in Hilo at the Hilo Family Center.  It’s amazing when you talk to people that live on the neighbor islands. They may have a very good doctor for about one year and then they leave. People are always looking for somebody. I also realize that there’s that need on Oahu as well, the farther you get out from town.

Q: Would you consider having your practice service the neighbor islands?

A: I want to be somewhere that there’s a need, but I don’t know right now where that exactly that is. I wouldn’t mind practicing on the neighbor islands, but I don’t know if I could live there full time. I would consider having a clinic open only a few days a week over there so that they have someone available.

Q: How will you balance the different aspects and responsibilities that come with being a medical doctor?

A: When you say I want to go to medical school, I want to be a doctor, what you’re really looking at it is what they do with patients, which is really awesome. You get to help people with their medical problems and sometimes you get help them with their life situation. You really get to know people at a personal level and that’s what I really like. But, they don’t really tell you that, oh by the way, you’ll spend eight hours doing the stuff you love and then you spend another eight hours doing paperwork. They really don’t tell you that. Had I known that before, I probably still wouldn’t have really understood even if someone had told me? It’s hard to understand how hard you have to work until you have to do it.

Q: How has it been managing your personal life with medical school?

A: When I started medical school, I knew it was going to be hard and I had to make sacrifices, but you don’t really know what you have to sacrifice when the time comes like, do you go to your friend’s wedding or do you work because you’re not supposed to be off?

Q: Have you seen yourself mature from your first year of medical school to where you are today?

A: I’m definitely more mature. I have a better grasp on the world, at least in the medical field.  Maybe not necessarily about other things because I don’t have much free time to read about everything else that’s going on in the world.

Q: Do you have any interest in maybe someday returning to the UH Medical School to teach?

A: I’m leaning more towards having students come to me to shadow. Having students come in their third year to do their clinical rotations and see patients. I’ll help them learn how to see patients, learn how to write notes, learn how to work with people, learn how to be professional. I see more of giving them more of the real life experience as opposed to standing and lecturing them. At the UH medical school we also have problem base learning. At most traditional medical schools, eight to ten hours a day you sit and someone lectures to you, all day. You’re supposed to absorb all that, go home and read, and kind of figure it out on your own.  In most of our curriculum you’re given a case the first day.  Say a fifty year old female who comes in with hip pain, and you kind of work through this life scenario and you incorporate all the things that you would have learned in a lecture.

Q: As a practicing physician, do you see yourself being available 24/7 for your patients?

A: I think that it is really important to be available. If I call my doctor, I want them to call me back. I also know that it’s not a real way to sustain life, to be completely available for every single person, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. For the most part my door will be open. If you need something and I can provide that for you, I will do the best in my ability to help you with that. I also want a family so there is some balance that needs to be achieved, but I think that this is one of my top priorities.

Q: What’s left of the remaining requirements in the final months of medical school before graduation?

A: You have to apply for residency, and you hope that someone will want you. You have to pass two required classes which are two months each, and the rest of the time is electives.

Q: How about your interests outside of medicine? Baking, Crafts, and your design work with your Cricut design machine?

A: I like to bake. I make cupcakes, cookies, cake, cake pops, and all kinds of stuff. I have a Kitchen Aide mixer, which I actually got from my parents for my graduation from high school.  I told my mom I wanted the Kitchen Aide mixer from Costco and she bought it for me. It’s awesome. I like to bake to give it away. I don’t really bake for me and my fiancé. Plus it’s hard to bake for only for two people.  I’m also interested in crafts. I make fun stuff like clay sweets. They actually look like real food. It’s made out of air dry clay so you can shape it. I make them and give them away as well. My Cricut is awesome. Honestly that’s the best investment. I have the original one that I got in the beginning of college.

Q: Where do you see yourself in the next 15-20 years in your personal life and practice?

A: Married, kids by then, because “then” is menopause, I think. Hopefully, one or two kids and living in Hawaii, but not sure where I see myself. My biggest accomplishment would be to have patients that really like coming to see me and get some benefit out of coming.

Q: Will you continue perfecting your Cricut master skills well into your later years?

A: I will Cricut until arthritis consumes my entire body. But, by then they’ll have robots to Cricut for me and I can just tell them what to do. I won’t need my arthritic hands.

                                                             Photo by Barry Villamil | [email protected]

Jennifer pictured with PCHS '04 classmate Tamalene Edwards who works as a medical assistant at the Bone & Joint Center at Straub.

                                                              Photo by Barry Villamil | [email protected]

Jennifer poses with Bone & Joint Center at Straub Manager, Mary Villamil.