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J. Lee Spitzer was in his third year of graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis and becoming uneasy with the isolating aspects of scholarly life. He loved Elizabethan literature and teaching undergraduates, but a series of deaths in his family led him to look for opportunities as a volunteer. “I wanted to devote a portion of my time to helping other people,” he says.
Assessing his skills, Spitzer hit upon the idea of offering a creative writing class for people associated with the university’s Siteman Cancer Center. At the time, there were no models for this initiative, and neither Spitzer nor the officials at the center knew how it would be received. Spitzer initially envisioned a six-week program, but the response was so overwhelming that the program took on a life of its own. “We welcomed patients, caregivers, and people who had lost loved ones—anyone who had something they wanted to say,” Spitzer recalls. “After six weeks, they just wanted to keep going.”
Over the next three and half years, Spitzer devoted increasing amounts of time to his writing program, which soon split into a series of groups and one-on-one sessions. “The more time I spent at the hospital, working in the world of cancer care, the more I came to understand the appeal of a medical career,” he recalls.
Encouraged by his colleagues at Siteman and his creative writing students, Spitzer decided to make the change. To acquire the necessary science background, Spitzer chose the Post Baccalaureate Pre-Medical Program at UVA. “I was impressed from my first visit by how supportive and encouraging everyone was,” he says. “While the program is necessarily rigorous, the directors go out of their way to help you master the material.” Spitzer has also found “Healthcare in America,” a course offered by the program’s medical director, Dr. Robert Powers, extremely useful during his subsequent time working in a clinical care setting. “The class equips you to participate knowledgably in debates about the state of our health care system that occur all the time when you work in a hospital,” he says.
Upon completing the program in June 2012, Spitzer took a post as a medical scribe at the University of Virginia Medical Center, took his MCATs, and applied for medical school. The dean of admissions at Tulane University School of Medicine was so impressed during a campus visit by Spitzer’s credentials and history that he offered him a place in the entering class on the spot.
Spitzer didn’t completely give up on his English studies, however. At the end of his glide year, he put the finishing touches to his dissertation, Shakespeare and Forgiveness, and received his doctorate in May 2013.