Student Spotlight: From Wall Street Financier … to EMT Volunteer … to UVA

February 4, 2022 By Rob Seal, Rob Seal,

In the early days of the pandemic, Douglas Pula realized that he might have found a calling. 

He’d finished his undergraduate degree at Yale University in 2019 and started a finance job in New York at JPMorgan Chase & Co., but his interests were moving toward health and wellness. Then the coronavirus caused New York to go into lockdown in March 2020.

“So there I was,” he recalled recently. “Most people were working from home, and there was a lot of uncertainty. I saw it as a chance to make the most of a difficult situation.”

Pula moved back to his native New Jersey and began volunteering as an ambulance EMT. He was also thinking hard about how he wanted to spend the rest of his professional life. 

“I really enjoyed working in the ambulance,” he said. “Then I got the opportunity to work at my sister’s hospital – she’s a resident. I was working as a scribe with orthopedic surgeons. I started to really love it. I had a good relationship with the surgeons I was working with, and I was able to see full days of surgery.”

The experience made an impression, and Pula found himself applying to the University of Virginia’s post-baccalaureate pre-medical program in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, a one-year program that helps students without undergraduate science degrees get ready for medical school.

He also recently won a national scholarship award from Liaison, the creators of the Post Baccalaureate Centralized Application Service, for an essay he wrote on the future of medicine and technology. Pula recently talked about the award, his experience in the program so far, and why it’s never too late to pursue a career in medicine.

Q. When you were working at the hospital and volunteering as an EMT, what made you think that medicine might be the career for you?

A. When I started as an ambulance driver, that was my first real exposure to sick people in times of need. I was also working in orthopedic trauma, which involves a lot of patients from car accidents. I started to realize that with health care, there’s always a way to get involved and to help provide superior care to those in need. It’s very much like being an athlete. When you have a goal in mind, you’re trying to get better every day and improve with your teammates. I count myself pretty fortunate that I had those experiences.

I started to really love it. I had a good relationship with two surgeons I was working with, and I was able to see full days of surgery. I would take Fridays and sit in the surgical theater to observe. My first operation to watch was actually a prosthetic hip replacement. I saw the surgical team gown up in full hazmat PPE and I thought, “Oh, this must be a COVID precaution” – and then I saw the bone saw come out. And I thought, “Well, this is medicine.”

I also saw a cardiac bypass graft. I remember the surgical team working in concert with each other, putting the heart onto a bypass machine, packing the chest with ice, then doing microsurgery. After, they take the heart off the bypass and restart it. It’s like witnessing a modern miracle.

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Q. You started the UVA post-bac program in the summer. What’s it been like so far?

A. I was really happy to be admitted to UVA’s program. UVA’s an incredible place.

The first semester was a challenge. There’s no doubt about that. I was a history major, but with a focus in finance and business. It’s very different going into a STEM program with no prior exposure.

When the fall started, I really had to start experimenting and figure out what works and doesn’t work for me in studying. I linked up with a friend who was an art history major. I think we’ve figured out a recipe for success in studying. 

Whenever we have a long week, we talk about how we need more “BIC” hours: butt-in-chair hours. There’s no excuse not to sit down and study. The cohort experience really makes that possible.

Q. How did your scholarship from the Post Baccalaureate Centralized Application Service come about?

A. Our program’s leadership told me about it, and I had been doing some research about scholarship opportunities. This was a national essay contest on the question of how technology will impact the future of medicine.

In my essay, I discussed the great push for e-medical records that are now coming into the health care system. There’s a big generational gap there. As a scribe, I got a lot of practice at working with software that does this, which wasn’t much different than my experience in finance working with Bloomberg terminals [a computer software system used to analyze market data].

I see electronic medical records becoming a better tool to provide insight on a massive, aggregated scale, to better identify risks and warning flags, like medicines that combine in dangerous ways.  

We’re all beneficiaries of an accelerated COVID vaccine, which is the result of new mRNA technologies, which are the result of about 25 years’ worth of research. It takes 20 or 25 years for technology to really change, and I’m excited to be a part of that.  

There are a lot of new avenues that will be opening up. Technology promises a lot, but it delivers in small incremental steps.

Q. What advice do you have for people considering going back to school to become a doctor?

A. First and foremost, get health care experience to test the waters. You don’t necessarily want to take the polar plunge and just jump in. It’s a hard transition to make to go back to being a student in a new subject.

If you’re on that fence, get some experience through volunteering or however you can, and then don’t be afraid to make the leap and join us in Charlottesville in June.

Media Contact

Rob Seal

Director of Marketing and Communications School of Continuing and Professional Studies