When Michael Butler fulfilled his long-held dream last June and graduated from medical school, he was 62 – an age when many of his contemporaries are starting to think about retirement.
Instead, Butler started thinking about his medical residency.
The three-year graduate training program for newly established physicians is required before obtaining licensure as a physician.
He had missed last year’s Match Day, the annual day of fate when more than 40,000 applicants to US and international medical schools learn if they have been accepted into a US residency program of their choice.
This year’s game day was looming on March 18. He knew the outcome would determine whether — after four years away from his family at a university in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean and clinical training sites in the United States — he could truly become a practicing physician.
Butler has applied to 51 residency programs in family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics. He volunteered as a scribe with the Bergen Volunteer Medical Initiative. He returned to work as a volunteer EMT, driving the ambulance in his hometown of Ridgewood.
And he prepared for failure, wish in september that if he was not accepted into a residency program, he would use his medical degree in some other way. He would always be happy to help young doctors develop skills in interviewing and taking medical history. “If I can’t do it,” he said at the time, “I’d love to help form the next group to do it.”
Butler fully understood the unusual nature of his candidacy, as someone medical school administrators call a “non-traditional student.” Only 6% of medical school graduates in 2019 were over the age of 32. And although many physicians continue to practice well into their 60s, it is rare for a physician to begin practicing in their mid-60s.
But after an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, a stint in the United States Navy piloting nuclear submarines, a master’s degree in business administration, three decades in corporate America and helping raise two children, this is what what Butler wanted to do.
He also knew he was reducing his chances of getting a residency match by limiting his applications to Northeast programs. US medical school graduates applied to 70 residency programs, on average, in 2020, while international medical graduates – like Butler – applied on average at 139. But Jessica Butler, his wife, had already sacrificed enough because of his absences of several months, he said. He wanted to stay within driving distance of the house.
For future doctors, the third week of March – culminating with game day – can be stressful.
It starts with notification on Monday, the first day of that week, indicating if – but not where – they corresponded. Those who have not been matched have three days to apply for a position in a program that still has a few spots available but was not on their initial list of preferred programs. All matches are then announced on Friday noon.
The suspense mounted after Butler learned Monday morning that he had been accepted – somewhere.
Jessica and their two children — Alex, who is in her first year of pediatric residency at Boston Children’s Hospital and Becca, who is in a doctoral program in psychology in Keene, New Hampshire — helped him during his four years as as a student with encouragement, moral support and study aids. “I couldn’t have done it – I wouldn’t have done it – if my family hadn’t been supporting me,” Michael said.
So it was only fitting that they all come together to “open the envelope” — virtually, around the kitchen table in their Ridgewood home — on Friday, March 18.
And so the butlers learned that Michael had been accepted into the family medicine residency at St. Joseph’s Healthwhich has hospitals in Paterson and Wayne and a family practice clinic in Clifton.
When his contract begins July 1, he will be one of four first-year residents and one of 12 in the overall program. He will alternate training periods of two weeks to two months in various medical specialties, from obstetrics and pediatrics to cardiology, surgery and palliative care. He will spend the first year caring for patients at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson and the second and third years in more office treatment settings, with more responsibility and more of his own patients.
From ‘Why?’ unanimously
Dr. Shideh Doroudi, program director for the Department of Family Medicine at St. Joseph’s, said it was natural to think of Butler’s age when the admissions committee considered his application.
“But we are St Joseph’s Health,” she said. “Diversity and inclusion is our mission. We are very inclusive. Age would not be a major concern.”
His main question, Doroudi said, was simply why: why did he want to do this? Was this a box he wanted to check off for a resume that already included a myriad of accomplishments? Was it a childhood dream for which he wanted to say: “Here, I succeeded!” ? Or did he have a passion for serving patients?
“It was very important for me to understand if that passion was there,” Doroudi said. “We serve a large underserved population here with high demand for primary care.”
So, during her interview, she asked this one question.
“Within 10 minutes, I was convinced,” she said. “It was clear. It matches the values for the future of this community.
“We have a committee, and [the decision to admit Butler] was unanimous.”
Family physicians treat patients throughout their lives. They are generalists, ready to meet all the needs of patients who walk through the door, from preventative screenings to treating conditions that typically include diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, anxiety and depression.
At 63, he begins three years of long hours and high pressure. He will be part of a new cohort of doctors in training, with peers half his age, in a demanding environment at a busy medical center.
“I’m very proud,” he added. “I think it took a bit of courage for them to choose me.”
And he says he’s ready.
“It’s exactly what I had hoped for,” he said. “The nature of the program, its size, the community focus, the breadth of training – that’s all I wanted.”
Best of all, he doesn’t have to move.
Lindy Washburn is senior healthcare reporter for NorthJersey.com. To keep up to date with how changes in healthcare are affecting you and your family, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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