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'I couldn't breathe': Match Day emotions run high as U. medical students are placed into residencies

SALT LAKE CITY — Following a lifetime of preparation and four years of scrupulous training, Douglas Chan had finally opened the letter informing him where he would have an opportunity to begin his career in psychiatry.

But Chan was still filled with anticipation and anxiousness as he waited for one more moment of truth: Where would Taylor Ford, his girlfriend studying pediatrics, be doing her own medical residency? Would the two of them be placed close together?

"I couldn't breathe," Chan told the Deseret News. "I was super nervous she wasn't going to say Albuquerque, then she did and we started crying."

"We're just happy we're in the same town to make it work," added Ford, who with Chan will undergo residency at the University of New Mexico.

The couple's rejoicing after learning their fates was a rewarding moment among a sea of celebration on campus Friday by 99 soon-to-be graduates of the University of Utah's School of Medicine, who earned residency placements with 67 health organizations in 32 states.

"It's surreal, the amount of work that we've done," said Jenn Nhan, co-president of the medical school's student government and a pediatrics major who learned Friday that she had earned a placement with her top choice, St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. "You get so used to the grind, and to come out of it at the end, it's very refreshing."

A tangible mixture of nerves and anticipation filled the Rice-Eccles Stadium reception room overseeing the Salt Lake skyline, where students who had secured a residency placement had gathered to find out their destinations at the same time — a ritual known as "Match Day."

The night before, Nhan said, "I don't think any one of us slept."

Before finding out their placements, students and their anxious family members waited patiently while medical school faculty and alumni gave short speeches congratulating them on their hard-earned progress and urging them forward.

"It can be very intimidating as a student to take that next leap of faith into a residential program," said Dr. Bryan Stone, president of the University of Utah School of Medicine Alumni Association. "What you have learned here will not fail you."

The nervous energy in the room erupted into shouts, cheers and tearful hugs as students opened their letters.

"From my first moment of wanting to be a doctor until now, this is the moment that made everything worth it," said Parvathi Radhakrishnan, who will be completing an internal medicine residency at Brown University.

"Pretty much the only thing I could focus on was getting that letter and opening it," Radhakrishnan said, joking, "I've never been so frustrated with an envelope before."

She said she and her boyfriend, fellow U. student Anish Bhatnagar, submitted around 300 combinations of application preferences in an effort to match up with the right residency opportunities while not being forced to live far apart.

In the end, the couple received their No. 2 preference, with Bhatnagar landing a residency at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital less than an hour away from Brown.

"It was something we were really worried about," Bhatnagar said of keeping the residencies close together. "I'm so happy."

Bhatnagar's mother, Riti Bhatnagar, is a clinical dietician at the U. and has had the chance to see her son's personal growth up close as medical school has stretched him. She said she would miss her son and his girlfriend as they move across the country, but called their placements "a big achievement."

"I'm a proud mom," Riti Bhatnagar said. "I'm proud of the University of Utah."

Dane Barton held his toddler daughter as he explained the sacrifices he and his family made on the long path to securing a residency.

Barton spent numerous hours away from his wife and two children during medical school, he said, but the hard work paid off Friday when he found out he would soon be completing an orthopaedic surgery residency at the University of Arizona.

"I've wanted to do this since I was 12," Barton said. "This has been 20 years in the making. It just feels like a dream."

University of Utah Health spokeswoman Suzanne Winchester explained in a release that "in the weeks leading up to Match Day, students completed an application process that included ranking their top choices for residency programs."

"Based on interviews and applications, those programs considered the students who picked them as their top selections. Then, if the preferred program accepts the student, it’s a match," Winchester said in a release.

Placements ranged from Missoula, Montana, and Boise, Idaho, to New York City and Washington, D.C., from hospitals in Colorado and Texas, to Kentucky and Florida. A handful even secured residencies at the U. itself. Winchester said more than a quarter of this year's graduates are staying in Utah.

Students leaving for residencies were doing so in 25 specialties, from radiology to general surgery to ophthalmology, while their stated reasons for which residencies they preferred were arguably even more diverse.

In all, 54 women and 45 men were matched into residencies.

Stone urged students who might miss out on their top preferences to understand that their own dedication to their profession will be the single greatest predictor of their future success.

"What is inside of you matters much more than what lies before you," he said.

Stone added that "for the well-prepared student, which you are, residency will fine tune you."

The uncertainty of the matching process all the way until the day when letters are opened can be emotionally draining, Nhan said.

"Matching's more exciting for us than graduating," she said. "It's just nerve-wracking."

For the graduates, residency means a few more years of practicing medicine under the best doctors in their profession before the training wheels completely come off. But on Friday, Nhan was on cloud nine and content on appreciating just how far she and her classmates have already come.

"I'm so proud of everyone in my class. They've worked so hard," she said. "It's culminated to here."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of University of Utah medical student Dane Barton. His surname is Barton, not Burton. The story also referred incorrectly to Riti Bhatnagar. Her first name is Riti, not Rita.