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Future doc offers dose of reality

By the time he finishes medical school, Dan Kaelberer will have completed 25 grades since kindergarten, learned about 13,000 new words and figured out a thing or two about bedside manner.

But he probably won't have an answer to the No. 1 question on the mind of the average patient: Why do doctors leave us flipping through old copies of Popular Mechanics in the waiting room for an hour before they'll see us for a five-minute visit?Dan sighs and digs into his soft-shell taco. We're sharing a Free Lunch in the University of Utah Medical Center cafeteria with about 150 doctors, nurses, secretaries and tired-looking medical students like Dan who are cramming for exams.

"Good question," says Dan, 27, a wiry young man in sandals and khaki shorts who goes everywhere these days with an Army green backpack stuffed with medical textbooks. "I don't think they have a class on how to deal with irate patients. That's something I'll have to learn from experience."

If all goes as planned, Dan will be leaving any angry queries to his office staff about six years from now while he focuses on the job he's dreamed about since he was a junior at Highland High School.

He hopes to become an obstetrician-gynecologist (that's OB-GYN in medical jargon) -- "the only job where patients are there because they want to be, not because they have to," he says. "A hospital delivery ward is usually a happy place, a place for celebration. I'd love to be a part of that. Delivering babies would be awesome."

Dan requested a hospital get-together because he hopes to give people a realistic idea of what medical students are really like. "We're not all super smart and well off," he says. "That's such a stereotype. The truth is, a lot of us are barely getting by."

As a full-time student and the father of a 2-year-old son, Matthew, Dan could certainly use a free lunch now and then. He and his wife, Lindsay, live in a one-bedroom basement apartment and scrape by with help from student loans and creative recipes made with spaghetti or tuna fish.

When Dan graduates in 2001 and moves on to a four-year residency somewhere, he figures he'll owe more than $100,000 in loans. But what's money, he says, when you're pursuing a dream? Two and a half years ago, Dan was slinging manure at his uncle's compost company when his wife called to let him know a letter had arrived from the U. School of Medical Science. Dan was certain it was a letter of rejection, since only 100 applicants are accepted each year.

"When she opened it and told me I was in, I couldn't believe it," he says. "Especially when I found out that 1,400 people had applied."

It isn't every day that one gets a chance to leap from manure to medicine. Although there's probably a joke in there somewhere for Jay Leno, Dan's aim is to make every moment count, even the bad ones.

"I've heard horror stories about third year -- the year that I'm about to start," he says. "That's when you learn the hands-on basics of medicine. You'll be up 36 hours on call in the E.R., when a gunshot wound trauma will come in and you'll be sitting there with your hand in somebody's stomach, holding an artery. Yeah, it can get pretty ugly, third year."

After lunch, Dan heaves his backpack over his shoulder and takes me up to the nursery to look at the newborns. "Aren't they incredible?" he says. "In six months, I'll be training here. I can't wait.

"My sister let me watch her C-section," he adds, "but when my wife had Matthew, she wasn't as willing." He pauses and grins. "She wanted my help at the other end."

Have a story? Let's do lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what's on your mind to freelunch@desnews.com or send a fax to 466-2851. You can also write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.