Future orthopedic surgeon, MD/MBA Aiming for olympic fencing [Show summary]
You think you have a lot to do? Our guest today is an MD/MBA student who happens to be training to join the U.S. Olympic fencing team and compete this summer in Tokyo. How does she do it all? Let’s find out.
Interview with Kamali Thompson, MD/MBA student and sabre fencer for Team USA [Show notes]
Our guest today is Kamali Thompson, a fourth-year MD/MBA student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey. Kamali attended Temple University as an undergrad, and graduated with honors after majoring in biology and minoring in psych. She has been fencing since 2006 when she was in high school. Kamali is a member of the 2019 national team completing research in the sports medicine division in the department of orthopedic surgery at NYU, and starting to become an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon. She’s also a 2018, 2019 author for Doximity, and Kamali is currently training for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background outside of medicine and where you grew up? How and when did you get involved in fencing, and medicine for that matter?
I’m from a town in New Jersey called Teaneck, New Jersey. It’s 20-ish minutes away from New York City. I grew up like a regular kid. I was interested in ballet, and I danced for a really long time from the age of three. I have a younger brother, and when I was in eighth grade I was on my way to go into the normal high school in our town, Teaneck High School. And I was at our Teaneck High School open house and my mother was with me, and I was actually dragging her to the dance room because I was so excited about getting to high school and dancing and being on the dance team and all that.
We got to the cafeteria and there was a fencing demonstration going on. And my mom, she stuck her head in. She’s like, “Ooh, what’s this? What’s going on?” And I was saying, “Mom, who cares? Come on, let’s go.” And she spoke to the coach, the high school coach, and the high school coach told her about the pros, saying how fencing is really unique, and how if I was able to get involved with a team, it could really help me get a college scholarship. And that coming from a dance background, I would have the basics, like footwork and bouts and all that stuff. So my mom was sold immediately, and she told me that I was going to be fencing in the fall with the high school team.
When I started fencing on the high school team, I did that for two years, and then after two years I really started to like it. I wanted to get better. And for fencing, what you have to do is you have to go to a fencing club where you get a coach, and you take private lessons and you fence several days a week. My coach recommended that I go to a club in New York City called the Peter Westbrook Foundation, and that is a club that was created by a six-time Olympian, Peter Westbrook, who wanted to help minority kids in the New York City area get involved with fencing. Fencing is very expensive, so it’s not something that a lot of inner city kids are looking to do. When you start off at The Peter Westbrook Foundation, you go on the Saturday morning program where you learn the basics of fencing, and they have different ages and different skill levels. So I started off in the advanced class, and my mom said, “Well, I’m going to go to New York City on Saturday. I’m not leaving this nine year old at home.” So Khalil, my brother, had to come by default. But after the first day he’s like, “This is crazy. This is great. I want to go fence too.”
How did you get interested in medicine and becoming a doctor?
I wanted to be a pediatrician from as long as I could remember. My mom had this little dress up box where she put all her old clothes and old old high heels and stuff in it. And I remember when I was young, there was a pair of scrubs, so I walked around the house in scrubs, and I can only imagine me, four years old, this pair of scrubs is drowning me.
My pediatrician — I loved her and I loved getting shots, and every time I went there I was super excited. I wanted a shot, a lollipop, a sticker. I just loved everything about it. So I always wanted to be a pediatrician, and when I got to high school I was really passionate about helping childhood obesity and combating that issue and figuring out how to help kids lead a healthier lifestyle. So I was very dead set on becoming a pediatrician until third year of med school. That was the plan. So my emphasis was definitely on medicine. I knew I wanted to be premed, I knew I wanted to go to med school pretty much immediately after college.
And then fencing … I fell into it. It was a really cool opportunity. And once I started training at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, all of the kids who I was fencing with were national champions, international champions. They had been on world championship teams, and they were all getting recruited to go to schools, D1 schools. They were getting full scholarships. So that was the first time that I realized that this would be possible, because my mom wasn’t even thinking about that. She was thinking, “Someone will throw you a bone and give you $5,000 a year,” or something. But these kids were getting full rides to amazing schools. Notre Dame, Penn State, Ohio State. A lot of kids were going to Columbia because we were in the city. So I wanted to be like them, and I wanted to keep fencing especially because it was a lot of fun. We’re 18 years old, we’re traveling around the country by ourselves. It was great.
I got into Temple University. I got into several schools. I decided to go to Temple University because their fencing program was really strong. I got into the honors program. I really liked the diversity of the campus; it just seemed like the right fit for me. That’s when I started getting really, really good, and I was 40th in the country when I got to school, and then by my junior year I was sixth in the country in my age group. So I got really, really good.
And my senior year a lot of students, they have to make the decision: Do I want to keep doing my sport or do I want to go into the real world to get a real job? But I knew for sure that for med school was happening because from day one I’d wanted to give those kids their shots, that was my plan. But I didn’t really feel like I’d accomplished anything in fencing. I had done pretty well my senior year. I was All-American after the NCAA championships, but I didn’t really have anything to claim. So I just decided to keep fencing. But if you’re going to keep fencing after college, the only thing for you to really strive for is the Olympics. So I guess I’m going to try and make the Olympic team and let’s see how it goes.
What was the hardest part of the med school application process for you?
The hardest part for me was the essay. I actually had a great mentor who was the director of the honors program, and we had 20 drafts of my personal statement. And just the fact that she was able to sit with me and go through that because by draft three you’re like, “This is great.”
So we write this essay over and over again, but the supplemental essays were just so draining for me, and I didn’t get those until August when I’m going back to school and I’m starting the new year. So I’m trying to do my classwork, I’m trying to go to practice, and then I get an email asking me for six separate, one-page essays. So that was a lot. And I definitely missed a couple of deadlines, but I got into school so it worked out. It all worked out.
About how much time were you spending in fencing both as an undergrad and as a medical school student?
So undergrad, we have practice from three to six, and we did that five days a week. And then on the weekends, during the season, I went back home to train because no one’s fencing on the weekends in college. So I was spending at least 20 hours a week. And then once I got to medical school and I made the decision to train for the Olympics, I just increased. So I now was going to the gym for an hour each morning before classes started. And then the commute to and from practice really killed me because I was in New Jersey traveling to New York. That’s an hour both ways, and then practice itself with at least three hours, at least four days a week.
What did you like best about your medical school experience at Robert Wood?
So Robert Wood Johnson is amazing. And the reason I chose it was because I felt like when I went for my interview, that school was interested in me as a person, not just me in terms of my stats, like my MCAT score and all that stuff. And I thought it translated really well to everyone that they chose to be a medical student. Everyone that I’ve gone to school with, and I’ve been in three different classes at this point, they’ve all been amazing individuals. We’ve had people who started their own business. We’ve had people that came from Wall Street. We’ve had people who have done mission trips and made a huge impact in the world.
But when you talk to them, like when you’re talking to me, we’re normal people. We’re not extra smart where we’re really awkward around people. We’re not super arrogant because we’ve accomplished a lot. We’re just really normal people who have great goals and are really ambitious. So being surrounded by people in that environment was great, because medical school can be super competitive; it can be very cut-throat. I’ve never felt like that with any of my classmates. It’s always been very friendly. Everyone wants to help each other out. Everybody genuinely wants everyone else to succeed. And I think the way Robert Wood picks their students, they have a great way of maintaining that environment. If you’re thinking about applying to Robert Wood, you definitely should. I absolutely love it.
My first year, we had a presentation on different things you could do through the school and there were dual degrees. MPHs, MBAs, JDs. And MBAs just got to me for some reason because my mom always told me knowing business, understanding business, will be crucial for any adult. And they were offering a one-year program instead of two years. So I was like, “Wait, this is great. Why would I not take advantage of this?” And so I applied to the MBA program, and I did it between my second and third year, and I think it was a great, great opportunity.
Do you see yourself using this degree at all?
For sure. I think one of the most important things I actually learned was more about personal finance. And especially right now, Millennials, we are behind in terms of how much income we’re making compared to our parents and our grandparents. That combined with student loans, it’s really easy for someone my age to fall behind in terms of financial planning. But business school was great in terms of teaching me what I should be doing. Even if you can’t do that much, you can still do a little bit here and there, which adds up. So that was great. And then I learned a lot about healthcare, pharmaceutical decision, supply and demand of healthcare, and just amazing things that I think everyone should learn in medical school, but we already have so much crammed in it. It’s hard to fit one more semester of business stuff in there.
What could be improved at Robert Wood in terms of your medical school experience?
I decided that I was going to go into orthopedics during my third year of medical school, and that was really difficult. It was a huge transition. And I feel like if I would’ve had a little bit more exposure to ortho or any other field, maybe anesthesiology, those rotations that we don’t have third year and those things that we don’t get to see until the last minute, I think I would’ve been more prepared earlier. So, if there was a way that we could just have more exposure to every single field. I don’t think I have any interest in radiology, but you never know. So if I would’ve seen something first or second year, maybe I would’ve gotten radiology. I don’t think our school and a lot of other schools have a great way of introducing students to every single field.
You had this dream to be a pediatrician, and year three, you switched to orthopedic sports surgery, which is quite a switch. How did you go through that switch and why? And then the other question is, you seem to be taking a rather long time to get through medical school. How has that worked?
The way our schedule is for third year of med school, things are grouped differently. So pediatrics, family medicine, OB-GYN and psych are in a different semesters then internal medicine and surgery. So my strategy was to do the rotation that I was most interested in last, so I could show them how smart I was after third year; “I know all this stuff.” Which meant that internal medicine and surgery were first for me.
So I finished internal medicine but was not feeling it at all. And then I get to surgery, I’m super nervous. Surgeons have this reputation for being really blunt, really mean, really forward, moving at a really fast pace. And I have no interest in this. So I’m just going to sit here. I don’t even care what’s going on. But little did I know, it was amazing. The first day, these people were moving like me. I’m very Type A: “Let’s get this done. Why is it taking so long?” So I saw me, and all of the surgeons that I encountered and the residents and all the stuff I was seeing was just so cool. I’m cutting into abscesses, I’m holding people’s intestines, I’m taking out spleens and gallbladders. I was like, this is really awesome!
And so I was telling my mom every day I have another cool story for her and after two weeks (orientation was eight weeks), she said, “I think you should really consider going into surgery because I’ve never heard you sound so passionate about this.” It just so happened, the people who I actually follow the most are pediatric surgeons, so maybe that was adding to it too. The little kids, they’re so adorable, and we’re fixing their hernias, I love this.
So we had electives that we could choose for the last two weeks of our rotation. And I chose ortho, because even though I wanted to do pediatrics, I was thinking about sports medicine, pediatrics and sports medicine. So I said, “All right. Well, ortho, it’s kind of like the surgical side. Let me see how that goes. That should be interesting.” And my whole class apparently wanted to do ortho, so all these people were trying to take my elective from me. So after six weeks of people wanting my elective, I was like, “No, I want to see what this is about, because what’s so exciting, what’s the hype about?”
So my first day, I’m doing an osteotomy and we’re cutting this 16-year old girl’s leg, and there’s two surgeons. And one of the surgeons is like, “I don’t know if she’ll be able to put the screw in.” And then the other says, “I think she can do it, I think she can put it in. Do you want to put this screw in?” I said, “Of course I want to put the screw in.” So I put this screw into this girl’s leg, and half of me is like, “I’ve got to do this because this man over here doesn’t think I can,” but the other half is thinking, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” And then that’s when it happened. I was like, “I can do this every day for the rest of my life. Just fix people and cut into them and put screws and drills, and this is amazing.” So, that was it.
I would say about 50% of my long path through medical school is because of fencing. So I try to make the 2016 Olympic team, and in pursuing that, the year of the qualifying year, I was going to be in my third year of medical school, and that just wasn’t really conducive to me training. Third year of medical school, you have all these rotations. For me, a lot of them were in South Jersey, which means it would be much harder to get to New York City to train. You’d never know when you’re going to get let out. And more importantly, you have to be present. So you look at the clock and, “Well, can you let me out now so I can make the train and get to practice,” and all this stuff, and you’re only allowed a certain number of absences. And I have eight World Cups that we’ve traveled to Europe and Asia and all the other places, so that wasn’t going to fly either, me asking, “Oh, I know I have to be here, but do you mind if I go to Korea for a second?”
So I decided to get my MBA in that time because it would be a very useful degree for me to have. It’d be a great use of my time. It’d be closer to practice, and I wouldn’t feel stressed out trying to juggle too much stuff. So then I come back to med school after the Olympics. I didn’t make that team, but I was the alternate. I come back to med school, I finish my third year, and then I decide on orthopedic surgery.
It was advised to me that I should not graduate medical school, especially entering a competitive specialty, until I’m ready to apply to residency. But it’s 2017 and I’m trying to make the 2020 Olympics. A lot of my mentors and my Dean told me the best thing for me to do anyway, to match an orthopedic surgery, would be to do research, and that’ll be perfect for me needing to wait until after 2020 to apply residency because it would just take a couple of years. So that’s why I’ve been in med school for a very, very, very long time. But it’s worked out really well, and I think all the decisions that I’ve made have been beneficial to my career in fencing. Not being able to graduate until 2020 has actually helped me realize all these things are useful and I’m glad that I’ve done it.
So Robert Wood has been fairly supportive of your ambition?
Oh, they’ve been extremely supportive. Every time this happened, I was so nervous because I was like, “Well, what if they say no? What if they’re just like, ‘No, you need to finish medical school and we’re not going to do this.'” But my dean has been very supportive of my dreams, and she knows that I have huge dreams. I’m sitting here telling you I just want to go into orthopedic surgery out of nowhere. All of my deans have been very supportive. They guide me along the process. So I did two years of orthopedic surgery research at NYU, and this year I’m taking off of school cause I’m just training. And my Dean still checks in with me and reminds me that I need to start applying for certain things, like away electives and all that. So they’ve been great. I definitely could not have gotten this far if my school did not want me to get this far.
Right now, I’m fencing full-time. It’s been amazing. I’m so used to running around like a crazy person; “I only have six hours.” This research stuff that I have to be as efficient as possible and now I can get sleep, because I definitely did not get sleep before. I’m always super early everywhere I have to go. But before I was always just making it because I’m trying to maximize my time in every location. Now I’m meal prepping. I’m bringing my food with me. I’m not eating out all the time. This is a great life.
Are you currently also writing for Doximity or not this year?
No. I was a Doximity author last year, which was a really great experience. But the only reason I didn’t want to do it this year is because I’m not in the medical field. I’m a summer blogger. I have a blog called Saber & A Stethoscope. And because I’m not in the medical field right now, I thought it would be a little difficult to get ideas to be blogging about just because I’m removed. But I will love to do it again in the future.
Was there ever a time, in either medical school or even when you were doing research or now that you’re fencing, when you thought about leaving medicine?
No, thank goodness. Especially because there are people that get to medical school and say, “This is actually not what I wanted to do.” One of my research colleagues at NYU had just graduated, and he said he did not want to be a physician. He just didn’t want to practice. So, no.
I think that it’s going to be exciting for me in my career because I don’t know if I’m going to be only a doctor for 30, 40 years. I definitely know I’m going to have my hands in other pots. I’m not sure what those pots are, but I think we live in a great time now where Millennials, we can pick and choose what we want to do, and when we get tired of something, we just move on.
I love medicine, and especially going to orthopedics, I haven’t decided what I want to do, if it’s pediatrics or sports or whichever. But whichever I pick, probably sports, I’m going to have a lot of variety, and I’m going to see different types of patients and be in different types of arenas, hopefully literally and figuratively. So I won’t be tired of medicine at all.
Do you see yourself continuing to fence after the Olympics in 2020?
Yes and no. It’s funny because a lot of people who stopped fencing still fence. They’ll come to the fencing club. My fencing club, we have a lot of Olympians, like a lot, a ridiculous amount of Olympians. They’ll throw their stuff on for fun, and they actually have a veterans’ category that starts at 40 years old where they go to world championships and stuff like that. I’m definitely not going to go to the Olympics and then leave the Olympics and leave my fencing stuff in the venue. I’m definitely going to keep fencing. It’s just a matter of on what type of level, and I don’t know. We’ll figure it out.
You mentioned your blog, Saber & A Stethoscope, and you also have a very active social media presence. When did you start writing the blog and why?
Originally, I wanted to start writing my blog the qualifying year of the 2016 Olympics because we’re traveling all over the place. Like I said, we have eight world cups and we have four national competitions. We’re all over the world, and I just thought it’d be really cool to write about. But there was just so much going on, I was exhausted, and I couldn’t get it done. So my third year of medical school I was like, “Okay, this is great, this is a great time to start my blog. I’m going to see a lot of things on my rotation in the hospital.” I started my blog third year.
There’s an education aspect, a fitness aspect, and this year there’s a Road to Tokyo aspect. It’s just been a great outlet for me to see things and write about what I see. And a lot of my fitness blog posts that I write are struggles that I have. How do you maintain a workout regimen when you are traveling all over the world or just working all the time? And it just seemed like so much work to get to the gym. For me, I feel the same way, but it’s so important, if anything, I have to find a way. So I write a lot of posts I think are relatable to other people. And then I have travel pictures. All the places that I go, I post in my travel gallery and I’ve been to some really, really cool places. So it’s just been great to, also, for me, just look back and see all the crazy stuff I’ve done in the last four years.
How do you see your career evolving? You obviously have several years of residency. Do you see yourself working for a large practice? Going into your own practice? Working for HMO?
A lot of fellows that I’ve spoken to in orthopedics suggest going to a private group practice. It’s just how you can recoup your funds quicker. Also, after my two years of research, I actually really like research. So going into academic medicine is definitely an option too. And then I really, really, really, really, really want to work for an NBA or a WNBA team. So whichever avenue helps me get there faster, that’ll be really cool too. I really like, obviously, being around athletes, so just to be around high-caliber athletes, it would just be amazing.
What would you have liked me to ask you?
It takes about $30,000 for athletes to become Olympians in the U.S., so a lot of things that we have to do are funded by ourselves. And I have an athletic trainer, I have a sports psychologist, nutritionist, my own personal coach, and we have to pay for all that out of pocket. Thankfully some of our trips are paid for, but then a lot of times this year, I’m doing international camps where I just go to another country and fence with their national team, and that’s on my own accord.
So I’m looking for people to help me raise $40,000. You can find my link, the donate page is on the homepage of my website. And if you go to www.kamalithompson.com, it says “donate” at the first button, and it’s got exclamation points!
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