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Pathway to Medicine: John Franklin


The MD Who Hadn’t Decided to Be a Doctor: John Franklin, MD, MSc, MA, Associate Dean for Minority and Cultural Affairs

My father, a WWII veteran and first-generation high school graduate, paved the way for my sister, brother and me to become physicians (my sister is a turncoat, a Harvard-trained lawyer). But initially – actually for quite a while – I didn’t take the bait. After spending four years at an arts high school, Interlochen, I decided to be an actor. So, off to New York and the New York University theatre program I went.

In the 1970s I spent a couple of years living in the exciting, but grimy, Lower East Side of Manhattan. After being offered the part of “Pimp No. 6” in a movie, I decided, “Maybe I should get some kind of education. You know, to fall back on.” So, I enrolled in a history class on the main campus, a weed-out course for history majors. Lo and behold, I received one of the few A’s in the class. Who knew? I was actually turned on by academics.

I dropped out of acting school, enrolled at Michigan State and powered through a zoology degree in three years. Then, I pondered, “What to do, what to do?” "Oh!" I thought, "I’ll go to medical school." Denzel Washington from the TV show "St. Elsewhere" was cool, and Bob Newhart played a psychologist with lots of whacky patients on his show. He even got to wear a sweater to work. See, I was a very philosophical kid with a lot of existential questions and angst. I read a lot in those days: Hermann Hesse, Hegel, P. D. Ouspensky, the Zen Comic books. I had big questions, and the world of books and deep meditation held the keys to the song of life. So I said to myself, “You’ve always been interested in the human dilemma, maybe you should be a psychiatrist.”

How I got into University of Michigan Medical School is still a mystery. My grades and MCAT were competitive; however, I had no medical experience to speak of. I had no idea of what I was really getting myself into. And that came back to bite me – I would never admit myself to medical school today.

There was a dark storyline lurking in the shadows. When I was 3-years-old, my other brother, who was four years older than me, was hit by a cab on his first day walking to school by himself. For two years, my brother was in what we now call a persistent vegetative state. He was also my roommate. My need for trying to understand the mind, consciousness and the brain was planted then. Fast forward to my second year of medical school when my other brother suffered a major mental illness episode as an undergrad and had to leave school. He was also my roommate then. Maybe that recurrent, haunting dream of being in an attic, lying in a casket, with two empty caskets on both sides of me wasn’t so random.

I was troubled, but in a profoundly functional way. I finished medical school – actually did very well in my first two years. However, when I hit the medical wards, I knew I had made a mistake. I was depressed and hated medicine. I didn’t even really enjoy my psychiatric rotation. Everybody thought psychiatrists were crazy and wasting a medical degree anyway. So I didn’t enter the residency match. I walked across the stage at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor with no job and no career. Nobody even asked me what was wrong. I’ve spent the last thirty years being around medical students to – hopefully – spare them some of the pain and guilt I felt. I was “the MD who hadn’t decided to be a doctor.” Take that, Oliver Sacks! (Bless his soul.)

I slummed for a few months post-graduation after a job managing a hunting lodge in West Virginia fell through. My first student loan bill woke me from my slumber. “I got to get some kind of job,” I thought. My friends advised me to at least get a medical degree: One year of internship and part three of the boards would provide that. I said, “Okay, maybe I can do that, gut it out and push some medical papers if I have to.” After a few months, I started a family medicine residency. But I quit after three days. This was the first time I had actually quit anything. Very embarrassing. Then, serendipitously, some kindred, disturbed resident quit his or her first-year psychiatry residency. “John,” I said, “This is your last chance. Remember psychiatry, it was why you went to medical school in the first place.”

Well, you would think this tragic chapter is about to end, but no. I started the residency and, after a week of orientation, when my first patient was coming up the elevator, I took off. I left town, went back to Ann Arbor and slept on a friend’s floor. I tried to join the Peace Corps, but they didn’t want me. I was just a medical student; I couldn’t build a bridge, a water filtration system or anything useful. After a couple weeks, it fully hit me how irresponsible I had been not to notify the training director or my parents of my whereabouts. My parents were relieved to hear from me, and so was the training director.

Ronald Trunsky, MD – I’ve never forgotten and am eternally grateful for him. What a mensch! He told me that it was okay, just to come see me when I got back in town. So I showed up to his office. He had a big comfy chair. I sank in. He had pictures of fishing trips to Alaska with his kids hanging on the hall. He offered, and then rushed out, to get me a cup of hot tea. He was wearing a tweed jacket, with the 80s equivalent of a PDA and copious notes hanging out of the front pocket. He sat down, looked me in the eye and said, “What is wrong with you!” And after the appropriate startled response, I said, “Yeah, what is wrong with me?” The rest is history.