Some Paths to Med School Are Longer Than Others: the Determination to Become a Doctor took One Alum All the Way to Mexico
Many students find the challenge of getting accepted to a graduate health program daunting: they are required to take difficult course loads while pursuing hands-on research or clinical experience outside the classroom, often while working to support themselves and families. Anthony Piccone, a practicing anesthesiologist in Denver for over twenty years, and 1978 alumnus of CU Denver's Biology program should serve as a beacon to those struggling to achieve their med school dreams. He applied no less than six times before finally being accepted to the University of Colorado Medical School and earning his MD in 1985. The path that led him into medicine made him the fighter he remains today.
Piccone was one of twelve siblings raised by a mother alone, "As you can imagine in a family of that sort higher education was not really something that important." He was asked by the Dean of Boys to leave South High School in 1968 in his junior year, because his work schedule made it impossible for him to attend class on a regular basis. "If I have any regrets in my path that might be one of them, that I didn't finish high school."
All Piccone's older brothers had gone into the Navy, but in 1969 Piccone was still just seventeen so his mother had to sign the paperwork for Piccone to enlist. "She was at the office in five minutes, and then I was in the navy. This was during Vietnam, the draft had just been eliminated, maybe by just a few months. After boot camp I was given the option to become a medical corpsman, and not knowing any better, I did it." That resulted in sixteen weeks of medical training at the Balboa Naval hospital in San Diego, his first taste of life in medical care. He received field medicine training as well, but because two of his older siblings were already stationed in the war zone he could not be shipped in to serve as a medic in Vietnam. As a result he served at a Marine Corp Hospital, Camp Pendleton in Southern California, for the next four years.
He was trained as a respiratory therapist and an anesthesia technician, which put him into the operating room working on soldiers brought back from Vietnam with every type of injury and aliment. There he met two men who would inspire him to become a doctor: Captain Bob Crossan, an MD, and Lt. Commander Wayne Miller, an MD who had gotten his bachelor's degree from CU Denver. These men encouraged him to apply to the Army Navy Academy in Carlsbad, California, which allowed him to earn his GED, and to apply to the University of Colorado upon his release in 1974. Unaware of the multiple campuses, Piccone only applied to Boulder, and was not accepted. He went to Red Rocks Community College for a year, while working at night as a respiratory therapist, and was accepted to Boulder in 1975. He attended there only one semester however, before learning about CU Denver and transferring. "It's an urban place, you get exposed to many other students like you, other students who are married and have obligations." He credits his pre-med advisor, Alan Brockway, and the GI Bill with making it possible for him to earn his Biology degree in 1978, "There's no way I could have done it without the GI Bill, no way."
He took the MCATs for the first time in 1977, as a junior, and though he didn't do well he applied to between fifteen and twenty medical schools. He was rejected by all of them. He did the same again in 1978 after he got his BS, with the same result. After graduation he took a job as a diener at the Denver VA Hospital – which meant he was responsible for helping break-down bodies in the morgue for autopsy – while continuing to take advanced level courses in math and physics to boost his GPA. In 1979 his applications were again rejected. "I even incorporated osteopathic schools to the list I applied to in 1979." He took a job that year in a podiatrist's office, looking into different areas of medicine he might enjoy and expanding the experience on his resume. He tried pharmacy school for a semester that fall, which only strengthened his conviction that he was meant to be an MD. Because his wife was from New Jersey they moved there in 1980. He worked as a lab tech in the Whiney Aircraft manufacturing plant and applied once again to med school. At this point he was a veteran with a BS in Biology, hands-on medical training and experience from his service in the Marines, and years of exposure and preparation in various laboratories and medical settings – and again he suffered another round of rejections.
So in 1980 he made a drastic decision: to attend the Autonomous University of Guadalajara, in Mexico. With only a six week intensive course in Spanish under his belt he began his graduate medical training, in Spanish, in July of that year. "It was difficult, but it was the best time of my life. I loved it, I just loved it. I love the Mexican people; in Guadalajara the weather is perfect." Explaining the protocol for American students arriving for school, "You would go and find yourself a senior American student who was finishing over there and you would buy his 'package.' And this would be everything, all of his furniture, his sheets and towels, his text books, sometimes even a house, and you would buy it all from him because he would be leaving and not needing it. Everything, his life." For roughly five thousand dollars Piccone got a four bedroom house with a maid, two cars, all his books, and everything he would need for himself and his wife in Mexico. And at twenty eight he finally started medical school.
"Obviously the goal was never to finish there. The goal was to start and to take the National Boards and transfer, or to keep applying to get in back in the States." Piccone says about half of the students studying in Guadalajara were Americans, and for about fifty thousand dollars a year they received the training they couldn't get back home. "I did everything they would do in the first year back here – physiology, anatomy, pharmacology – what I didn't study in Spanish during the day I would study on my own, in English, at night." He pursued every route he could think of to get into an American medical program, and applied again after each of his two years in Mexico, only to face more rejection. Upon completion of his second year he took the MCATs again and the National Boards, but he returned to Mexico to start his third year before he got the call that would change his life.
"About August 15th or so I got a call from Henry Silver, and he was the Dean of the Med. School. He knew about me because I'd been beating on his door every year, and each time I'd get rejected I would go to him and say, 'What do I have to do? Tell me what to do.'" But this was the first time Dean Silver had sought out Piccone. Silver told him that due to extra money coming last minute from the legislature the University of Colorado Medical School was going to be able to expand the first and second year classes by five students each, and offered him one of those spots. The call came on Friday and Piccone was in Denver to start classes on Monday. "It was like a miracle, it was a miracle for me."
While at the University of Colorado Medical School Piccone shone among his classmates and exceeded everyone's expectations. When his coursework from Mexico was not accepted in transfer he promptly tested out of all his first year requirements, and came in second in his class. "I wanted to prove that they almost missed the boat, and that I should have gotten in a long time ago." He did his clinical rotation in anesthesiology with Dr. Philip Bromage, the Chairman of the Department and an esteemed innovator in the field, and Dr. Katie Wood, who mentored him into his interest in the pain management aspect of anesthesiology. Piccone earned his MD with ease in 1985, and after a brief internship in Arizona came back to Colorado to complete his residency in 1988. He practiced anesthesiology in Denver for the next twenty one years, working his way up to Medical Director of Midtown Surgery Center.
Due to health issues Piccone was forced to stop practicing anesthesiology in 2009, but after over six years of painful surgeries and a successful transplant of his small intestine last year, Piccone now hopes to resume practicing medicine later this year. Because he has been out-of-practice for over twenty four months the Colorado Board of Medical Examiners will require him to go back and do some studying up before he is able to reactivate his medical license – but this is an appealing challenge for a man who fought for close to a decade to get his medical degree, and has now successfully come back from cancer. "I'm the luckiest man alive." Piccone says of his recovery, and of the college he is proud to have attended: "University of Colorado has a special place in my heart. It gave me the opportunity to do what I'm doing, and I'm lucky to have been there."