M4 Patrick Donegan forms friendships, future at VUSM
Fourth-year MD student Patrick Donegan recently matched into ophthalmology for his upcoming residency. Before he leaves Vanderbilt, he shares reflections on life with his classmates and friends.
By: Lexie Little
In an alternate universe, M4 Patrick Donegan might have worked as a marine biologist. The California native could have spent his days around Huntington Beach testing and monitoring sea creatures in the very sand where snow has fallen just once in his lifetime. But then again, he could have been a doctoral candidate in entomology, capitalizing on his undergraduate and gap year research in mosquito genetics and genetic engineering at the University of Notre Dame. Or, he could have taken his interests in history, political science, and foreign policy abroad for a master’s degree in international relations like his sister, who currently studies at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
But the Fighting Irish fan’s genuinely Irish grandfather set a real example one that Donegan could never shake.
“My grandfather was in medicine,” Donegan said. “He was a general practitioner from Ireland. He went to school and trained in Ireland before doing his residency in London in ENT. He then came over to the U.S. in the 1950s, and then had all of his kids when he came here. He had met his wife in London.”
Donegan’s father, who did not pursue a career in medicine, encouraged young Pat to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps when he demonstrated early interests in science. He applied to the University of California San Diego for marine biology and Notre Dame for the pre-medical track. Equipped with a scholarship offer, he chose the latter to follow a lifelong penchant in a familiar occupation.
He can still hear the indie music that greeted him in South Bend, Indiana, beneath the watchful eye of “Touchdown Jesus” overlooking the football field where the Irish upset ranked Miami during his senior year.
“I did some deejaying in college,” he said. “I was mostly just there for audio-visual support for my roommate who was like a real deejay…Philip had an hour-long weekend radio show he did at Notre Dame: his own little indie mix. He would always bring on a friend to alternate picking songs and have a little chat after the song to talk about why we picked it. All of the playlists were on Spotify, so that was a lot of fun.”
Donegan met Philip Wilson, who was in the class above him, during freshman year at Notre Dame. When senior year came, Wilson went off to medical school in Tennessee at a place Donegan knew little about: Vanderbilt.
A California transplant living in the Midwest, Donegan heard about Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) solely through Wilson, who chose to attend VUSM after attending Second Look Weekend, hosted by MD Admissions. Trusting his longtime friend, Donegan decided to apply when the time came.
He waited anxiously for his name to move off the waitlist in Spring 2017. When he got the acceptance call, nerves developed as he considered his future life in medical school.
“I spent a lot of time in leisure [at Notre Dame],” Donegan said. “I think for that reason, it was a big change coming to Vanderbilt and having to be on my game. That was a pretty big transition. I felt I needed to get used to the fact my classmates were going to be more impressive than I am.”
Quickly, however, Donegan realized that each member of his cohort held the same academic and professional potential, which facilitated a collegial environment where friendships quickly formed.
Finding a new community
Logging on to Facebook, Donegan clicked through to the Class of 2022 group where members of his VUSM cohort-to-be chatted about where they might live, places to eat, and things to see in Nashville. A few of them had been on the waitlist like him through April, May, and even June.
Going to Vanderbilt meant starting a new life with new friends. Now, approaching the end of medical school, those friends have become “old” friends and roommates he calls the most important part of his life.
“After getting off the waitlist, I posted in our Facebook group chat asking to see if anybody wanted to live together,” he said. “I expected to get like one person that wanted to live in a double, and it would be like college. But I got four responses, and we found a five-bedroom house and decided to live there, having never met each other before. Ben didn’t even have a Facebook. I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’ I just saw his UChicago Athletics page. Xavier had his twin in his profile picture, so I didn’t even know which person he was. I googled Leland, and he was student senate president [at Clemson University], and thought ‘Who is this guy?’ Leland moved the evening right before class started, so he was cutting it right down to the wire.”
Ben Coiner had played collegiate baseball. Xavier Bledsoe had studied politics at Princeton. Leland Dunwoodie had made a name for himself as a leader at Clemson, like he would do again as executive class president at VUSM. And Donegan had found a new set of friends who would act as a crucial support system as they navigated their medical studies.
The Natchez Trace Boys, as they are known, settled into their house cross from Vanderbilt Stadium and Charles Hawkins Field. On the occasion of a Vanderbilt score, The Admiral naval horn sounds, filling the house with noise – not that there’s ever much silence amid the clamoring of guests, family, friends, and “the Boys” themselves.
“We’ve had family dinners, and we’ve invited all of our neighbors over,” Donegan said. “We have five first-year [medical student] neighbors that live to the left of us, and we have two elderly neighbors that live to the right of us. We’ve had all of them over for a big dinner before. Our house has been here a long time, and it’s easy to get to. A lot of our classmates know where we are, so we’ve hosted Thanksgiving three of the four years that we’ve been here. One year, I think we had 63 people at our house for Friendsgiving. I think it was second year. That’s been awesome, hosting events. Nothing crazy – we’ve not had any crazy parties. But we’ve had barbecues, Friendsgiving, small class gatherings. It’s nice to have built-in friends.”
Now in their final year of medical school, Donegan and his friends listen to the questions from their first-year neighbors, seeing history repeat itself as a new cohort of five makes its mark on Natchez Trace. They reminisce about the mornings they spent around the breakfast table before heading out for class, clinical rotations, or any of the vast activities that fill medical students’ days.
Living and learning
A groggy Donegan often rolled downstairs, making his way toward the kitchen where a classmate undoubtedly sat.
“Hey, what was that deadline?” he would ask, looking toward the class president.
He listened for Dunwoodie’s common refrain: “Pat, just read your email.”
Never out of sight, the friends hold each other accountable and keep one another on track both at home and at school. During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown period, they spent their days in the same room for six straight weeks studying for the United States Medical Licensing Examination Step 1 – 15 hours per day together.
For Donegan, that togetherness remained a positive.
“Living with my roommates, the lockdown period really wasn’t that difficult for me, which was a silver lining,” he said. “I know it’s been tough for other people, especially people who live alone. Some of my classmates probably were very lonely during that time. For me, it was kind of the same old, same old, just with virtual work. We had a garage gym. Cullen Moran and Adam Stark in our class set up a gym in our garage, which is basically a shack with animal carcasses [in it] – it’s really nasty back there. They put up a piece of plywood and set up a rack and dumbbells, a barbell and the bench and everything. So, we worked out every day. That was our socializing because it was outdoors in fresh air, and it was a small group of us. That was our Step 1 quarantine squad right there. That was a lot of fun.
“It’s really valuable to spend a lot of time getting to know your classmates. Going to in-person class was valuable for me. Seeing friends on a regular basis – they’ll be your support system. I think the people who have a hard time in medical school are people who are more distanced from the class and don’t have a good support system. I guess there are people who get anxious around other med students, but I personally feel less anxious around my friends.”
Whenever he needed advice on which electives to take or which attendings might make the best mentors, Donegan turned to classmates who currently follow different specialty paths. They speak freely about their experiences in medical school, helping each other make informed decisions about coursework, research, and personal endeavors.
Donegan, Coiner, and Dunwoodie sat at the same class table during much of their first year, where Dunwoodie met his partner, Caroline Maguire, with whom he plans to couples match into residency next week. As Match Day approaches, Donegan observes his friends preparing for another life milestone, following passions they have shared over the years through gossip and advice.
“All of the school gossip, we know it all, because it’s going to come from three different angles: good attendings, good people to work with, random tidbits of medical knowledge,” Donegan said. “It’s passed on because we’re all enthusiastic about our specialties and rotations… All the people that my roommates are close to in their academic endeavors, I’ve also gotten to meet through my own, whether it was on pediatrics with Leland or pathology with Ben.”
Donegan, not one to stand in the spotlight himself, plans to spend much of Match Day on March 18 celebrating his classmates, a common act from an uncommonly supportive friend. After all, he already knows his next destination, having matched early into ophthalmology at the University of Iowa on Feb. 8.
Seeing possibilities for the future
In his time at VUSM, Donegan worked on several ophthalmological research projects. From examining medication ocular toxicity for his research immersion experience at the VA hospital to glaucoma studies, he has deepened his knowledge of ocular medicine in preparation for practice.
One project involved creating a “glaucoma doctor’s visit in a box,” a pandemic innovation that could mitigate the number of patients needing in-person examinations.
“There’s a tonometer to measure your intraocular pressure, but it’s handheld, and you do it to yourself. It’s like a little probe that hits you in the eye six times to take your pressure. There’s also a virtual reality headset that you put on to get your visual fields,” Donegan said.
His current project involves working with his friends, which he believes strengthens the learning experience. Each future physician informs the study through differing specialty interests, making challenges easier to conquer. The project reminds him of case-based learning sessions back in their first year of medical school, in the early days of their friendship, bringing the experience full circle.
Partnering with future pediatricians like Dunwoodie and fourth-year student Steven Scaglione, Donegan examines orbital cellulitis in children – infections behind the eye, which vary month to month, season to season – under the direction of Dr. Louise Mawn, Oculoplastics Division Chief at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Mawn completed her residency in ophthalmology the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics where Donegan will continue his career.
“Patrick has been fun to work with; I have enjoyed playing a small part in his VUSM journey,” Mawn said. “Several of his unique characteristics come to mind. Notre Dame athletic wear might make up his entire casual wardrobe. Secondly, I think he was the first person I knew in 2020 who tested positive for COVID after a patient exposure. He was so worried that he could have transmitted it to our research group, he checked in on us frequently [though] none of the rest of us contracted it. Patrick is a hard worker and will be a great ophthalmologist.”
Reflecting on a legacy
Before Donegan packs his bags full of Notre Dame and Vanderbilt swag for Iowa, he looks forward to spending time with his classmates and friends in Nashville. He hopes to establish a foundation for continued relationships based on communication in his own attentive way.
Donegan created group chats with his friends from high school and college shortly after graduation, and he intends to do the same with his support system at VUSM.
“It’s going to be sad to move for the third time…You grow really close with people, then have to let them go, which is really weird. You unceremoniously leave everyone behind,” he said. “[But] I’ve managed to convince all of my high school and college friends to consolidate chats onto one app…I have a separate channel for my high school friends and a separate channel for my college friends. We talk literally throughout the day every day, all the time. I know exactly what’s going on in the lives of my high school and college friends at all times.
“I’m really hoping to do that with my med school friends because you get really close over the course of four years…I feel like if you can continue communicating in the first few months after you move on from school, keeping in touch with friends, it sets a great precedent for later on.”
During a pause in the conversation he looks out from his Natchez Trace house windows as his first-year neighbors return from class – the next generation. Perhaps in three years, they will feel the same affinity for one another as he feels for his roommates and classmates.
He sees his reflection in their eyes, a window to his own memories: minor injuries sustained during College Cup competitions, music playlists curated with classmates each Wednesday, coffee roasted with friends, consults with residents at VUMC (who were once fellow members of Batson College), and early mornings around the breakfast table with others from the Class of 2022.
As he reflects, he hopes the next generation will follow his advice.
“Build good study habits. Enjoy yourself when you have time to enjoy yourself during medical school. When it’s not crunch time, go out on the weekends, go out on a Friday, see your friends and classmates, make plans…I’ve been very happy and happiest when I’ve been close to all my classmates,” Donegan said. “Your time is valuable, and you should spend that time enjoying yourself. You don’t need to overwork. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, administrators, and professionals if you really do need mental health services. I have a lot of friends who have faced tough times and dire straits, and they got a lot of utility out of reaching out to people and seeking help.”
Donegan might have been any number of things in alternate universes, but one trait would remain constant in each: true friend.
Just ask his roommates.
“Pat is the most loyal friend anyone could ask for. He is a lover of people, coffee, music, long runs, sports, world events, Ireland, eats, drinks, store-brand Oreos, and – yes – eyes,” Dunwoodie said. “To be Pat’s friend is to experience unyielding, fierce companionship.”