I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career

Finlay Pilcher is a medical student in the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine Class of 2024 and a 2021-2022 VT/NH Schweitzer Fellow.

In the second of a two-part series, Pilcher explores how her experience trying, and by some measures, failing to improve Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination in Lamoille County, Vermont reinforced her choice to leave her job as a geotechnical engineer (six years ago) to pursue a career in medicine. She is planning to become an infectious disease physician and is especially interested in public health.

Finlay Pilcher poses, smiling behind a green cloth face masks covered in white outlines of the state of Vermont,  for a photo in a school cafeteria. She holds up her surgical glove covered hands beside her face.
Finlay Pilcher.

The title of this post is a quote by the great Michael Jordan. He and I don’t have much in common, but we do share that we’ve both tried many shots that didn’t work out the way we intended.

For me, many of those 9,000 missed shots occurred quite literally during my year-long Albert Schweitzer Fellowship project.

My project aimed to improve HPV vaccination in Lamoille County, VT to protect adolescents from several types of cancer. To do so, I created a school-based health fair, during which students taught each other about preventative healthcare measures, including HPV vaccination and safer sex. Everything went exactly according to plan and the fair was incredible, but not a single student ended up getting an HPV shot.

For a while, I felt that I had failed because I didn’t manage to accomplish what I set out to do. Reflecting on my project over the past few months, however, I have come to appreciate that there are often more metrics of success than the ones we plan to measure. Sometimes, the intangibles are just as important.

For instance, two students were so excited by the health fair that they created their own project to teach destigmatizing and inclusive sexual health education to their peers. They have taught classes and created educational materials, including an Instagram account (@SexEdwithJessandEmma) and a website.

Knowing that young people were inspired enough by what we did together to continue this work independently fills me with hope and pride. In one of our Schweitzer Fellowship meetings, Molly Rideout, MD, professor of pediatrics at Larner and Albert Schweitzer Fellowship advisor, reminded me of this, saying, “Even if you do all this work and you only reach one person, but you really reach them, it’s worth it.” Now that I’ve experienced it firsthand, her advice rings truer than ever.

Another intangible is the effect my Schweitzer Fellowship project had on me.

I chose a career in medicine in the hope that I’d be able to find what I was missing in my previous job as a geotechnical engineer. I used to spend my workdays in a soil pit alone or with a construction crew battling against many of the stereotypical and complex dynamics between engineers (especially female engineers) and construction foremen. When I took what I learned from the soil to design foundations, my clients used that information to flatten hillsides and gentrify neighborhoods. Though I loved soil science, I was sometimes inadvertently hurting my community and felt completely devoid of connection to my work.

During my Schweitzer Fellowship year, I found the connection I was looking for.

When I reach out to my community partners now, they ask me how my first United States Medical Licensing Examination® (USMLE® Step 1) went, or how my clerkship at Central Vermont Medical Center is going – things I mentioned to them weeks or even months ago. Furthermore, the LGBTQ+ student group I worked with has extended an open invitation for me to attend their meetings whenever I am able, further instilling the feeling that while I initially set out to serve this community, I ended up instead becoming a member of it.

The complete Michael Jordan quote is, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

I sort of think of my journey into medicine like that.

I chose the wrong career, I started over at community college in my late 20s, and I have airballed my life’s version of the game winning shot many, many times. But I think all of that led me here, to a career path where I feel so fulfilled and satisfied. And to me (and probably Michael), that is success.