On road to Match Day, couple faced med school and cancer together
By Jan Jarvis
Michael Gabbert was weeks away from starting medical school when he learned that a lump on his throat was malignant.
Diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, he underwent surgery at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Days later, he returned to Fort Worth in time for his first class at Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine.
He still had stitches in his neck – and an unbridled drive to become a physician.
“Why would I let something like that stop me?” he asked.
Four years, two surgeries and dozens of days of radioactive iodine treatments later, Gabbert moved closer to his goal of becoming an internist when he matched on Friday with a residency program in Fort Worth.
He joined 206 TCOM students who learned their fate during the Class of 2019 Match Day Celebration. Match Day is when fourth-year medical students nationwide learn where they will spend at least their next three years training as residents. In addition to the students seeking positions through the National Resident Matching Program, 20 other TCOM students already have matched through other programs.
Gabbert was joined at Match Day by his wife, Brittany, another TCOM fourth year. To their joy, they both will do their residencies in Internal Medical at Medical City Fort Worth. The couple matched after applying to 50 internal medicine residency programs, hoping to land in the same city.
To get to this day, the Gabberts have endured plenty of setbacks that could have easily derailed their career aspirations.
Brittany was in Italy visiting family and had to rush to Houston for Michael’s surgery. They were under such a time crunch that she was allowed to remove his stitches and pull his drains.
They made it to class in July, and then in December he had his first radioactive iodine treatment to reduce the risk of reoccurrence.
During their second year of medical school, he had another surgery, this time on the right side of his neck. Brittany forced herself to study while he had surgery again.
“I know I would just be sitting there worrying, so I figured if I read then I would have it done by the time he was awake,” she said. “I’ve learned that in medical school that every second counts toward study.”
That surgery was followed by treatment with radioactive iodine. Their families helped them get through it and procedures were timed so he missed as little school as possible, Brittany said.
“This school was always willing to let us make up days or move tests around,” she said.
In May 2017, the couple learned the cancer was back, this time in his lungs. Michael was again treated with radioactive iodine.
Somehow during their third year the couple found time to get married. Both have wanted to be physicians since childhood and were determined to never allow the diagnosis to deter them.
“We discovered that humor is a great way to approach something like this,” she said. “We laugh whenever we can. It’s been a big learning experience.”
Most recently, they have been busy doing a rotation in Longview.
Their shared experience has taught them lessons that they believe will make them better doctors. Being on the receiving end of bad news has helped them develop more compassion and empathy.
“When you are sitting in that chair, it is quite terrifying and like nothing you can really imagine unless you’ve been there,” she said. “I know how devastating it is.”
Michael said he has learned a lot from seeing how two of his doctors dealt with his diagnosis. One was cold and unsympathetic, the other calm and caring.
“I want to be the physician sitting alongside the patient who is receiving this life-changing information,” he said. “I want to be the one to share in their and their family’s pain.”