‘I understand people feeling desperate’

Class Acts-Human Health: Weston McCarron, a nontraditional med student with low-income roots, heads to a career as an ER physician

Medical student Weston McCarron (right), practices performing an ultrasound with Evan Schwarz, MD, April 19 at the Charles F. Knight Emergency and Trauma Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital (BJH). McCarron will begin his residency in emergency medicine at BJH after graduation. (Photo: Matt Miller/Washington University School of Medicine)

Trauma rarely fazes Weston McCarron.

He takes a deep breath. His heart rate slows. His mind focuses. He continues long breaths, slow breaths, for one second, two, and three, before racing to assist people involved in medical emergencies.

Unfrazzled, McCarron delivered one-two-three back blows to his purple-faced daughter to dislodge the piece of chicken she was choking on as a toddler. He remained unshaken when he rescued his small son from drowning after the boy, in a blink, jumped into a river and, face-down, floated away in the current.

Nerves intact, he helped a midwife deliver his three sons during at-home births. During the first one, the umbilical cord wrapped around the baby’s neck. Calmly but quickly, McCarron eased away the cord so his son could breathe.

Once, McCarron drove himself to the hospital after he broke his collarbone while playing intramural football in college. “The triage nurse scoffed and told me that if I had broken a bone, I wouldn’t be so calm,” he recalled. “I pulled down my shirt collar to show her the obviously deformed bone with a jagged point sticking up. I was seen right away.”

Nonchalant, McCarron smiled: “I am drawn to emergency situations because I feel a strong need to help people during horrible moments,” he said. “A crisis doesn’t generally unnerve me. I am able to stay calm and assess and prioritize what needs to be done. This allows me to focus wholly on helping those in dire straits.”

Next week, McCarron will receive his medical degree from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. An elected member of the Alpha Omega Honor Medical Society, he will begin residency training in emergency medicine in July at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Just shy of 36 and a father of four, he’s not a typical medical student.

And unlike many of his classmates who spent much of their lives academically preparing to become doctors, McCarron never considered medicine while growing up in Jerome, Idaho, a one-stoplight town in an economically depressed swath of the state.

“Until recently, I never knew anyone in health care,” McCarron said. “For a big part of my life, I didn’t see a doctor because I was poor and uninsured, or underinsured. Medicine was never on my radar.”

Class Act: Cameron Hill

Cameron Hill was working late in the laboratory on a Friday night in July 2017 when she heard about a protest underway outside a St. Louis jail facility. While her experiment ran, she read about the intense heat inside the Medium Security Institution, colloquially called the Workhouse.

Hill, an Annika Rodriguez Scholar, is set to earn her degree in anthropology in Arts & Sciences this month. She ultimately plans to become a doctor, but her concern that night went beyond the physical.

Read more about Hill’s advocacy and work for equity in jails and elsewhere.

His father often worked two jobs, in both a potato factory and a cardboard factory, struggling to earn enough to pay the utility bills for the family’s three-bedroom apartment. Sometimes, knowing that the water would be turned off, McCarron and his three brothers filled buckets in hopes they’d have enough water to last until it was turned back on.

Feeding four growing boys proved expensive. “I never starved, but we ate a lot of ramen noodles,” McCarron said. “I remember being a teenager, and I’d get so hungry. I’d want a second bowl of cereal but often wasn’t allowed.”

McCarron’s mother, who distrusted public schools and insisted on homeschooling her boys during their early elementary school years, abandoned the family when McCarron was 14, he said.

“Theoretically, we were homeschooled, but in reality, we lacked a schedule and were mostly left to teach ourselves reading, math and science,” McCarron said. “I read encyclopedias at home and in the library. I liked both World Book Encyclopedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. World Book had more entries, but Britannica usually went into more depth.”

Thanks to the tomes, McCarron also learned about puberty and human reproduction, allowing him to dispense his first medical diagnosis of sorts while in high school. His friend had kissed her boyfriend and started “freaking out that she was pregnant,” McCarron said. Calmly, he reassured his friend by explaining the scientific impossibility of a kiss causing pregnancy.

In the third grade, McCarron began attending a Christian school, where he went on to skip the fourth and eighth grades and achieved near-perfect scores on standardized tests. His hometown newspaper, the Times-News, doted on him for earning a National Merit Scholarship at age 15, two years younger than most students who receive the elite honor.

Weston McCarron and his oldest daughter announce his match. Washington University medical students find out destinations for residency training during Match Day at the Eric P. Newman Education Center on March 15, 2019. (Photo: Matt Miller/Washington University School of Medicine)

The following year, McCarron attended Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada, on scholarships and student loans. One of the university’s younger students, McCarron graduated with honors at 19 in 2003, earning a degree in math with a computer science minor.

Around this time, McCarron began contemplating medical school, inspired by his desire to help people. “But I didn’t pursue it because I had to hustle just to make ends meet,” he said. “Plus, I had just gotten married, and we were going to have kids. Medical school seemed far out of reach.”

He met his future wife, Rachel, when he was 2 years old and she was 5. Their families socialized and attended the same church. McCarron mostly played with Rachel’s brothers; however, he recalled her once offering to share her prized My Little Pony figurine and, although he politely declined, it kindled a bond. Today, they are raising three boys and one girl, ages 9 to 15.

With student debt, kids and no savings, McCarron spent more than a decade focused on paying bills. He worked as a computer scientist, a radio engineer, a construction company owner, a real estate agent, a radio station owner, a church elder, a body piercing artist, and a high school science and math teacher. His wife taught swimming and English as a second language.

In between family duties and his many jobs, McCarron volunteered for four years as disaster-response leader for the American Red Cross of Greater Idaho. He also spent two weeks leading efforts to rebuild an orphanage in Haiti after the catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake in 2010.

In his rare spare time, McCarron has played the double bass, violin and guitar; sung in choirs; performed in musicals; ridden his unicycle; brewed beer; climbed rocks; and participated in jiujitsu competitions with his wife and kids.

McCarron’s strong work ethic, his intellectual curiosity and his empathetic, even-keeled personality impressed the emergency medicine physicians at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

“I have no doubt that Weston is going to make an incredible emergency medicine physician,” said Evan Schwarz, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine and section chief of the medical toxicology program at the School of Medicine.

“Weston is incredibly smart and dedicated,” Schwarz said. “He also is deeply compassionate. This is critical in emergency medicine because you must be able to connect with strangers in their time of need, and you must be able to do this quickly. Weston is able to form immediate connections with his patients.”

Medical student Weston McCarron, 35, poses with his wife and four children at Forest Park. Everyone in the family loves to climb trees and read. McCarron will start his residency in Emergency Medicine at Barnes-Jewish later this year. (Photo: Matt Miller/Washington University School of Medicine)

McCarron credits his empathy to past hardships that include helping family members addicted to drugs and alcohol. “I don’t judge, and I understand people’s pain,” he said.

His younger brother Ben’s depression and addiction to meth and opioids pivoted McCarron toward medical school.

McCarron remembers the precise turning point — a 2 a.m. call from his sister-in-law in August 2012: “Weston, Weston, I thought Ben was coming to bed, but he didn’t, so I went to check on him, and he was hanging from the back porch. I called 911 and started CPR …”

In his mind, McCarron started to panic: Oh no, oh no, oh no … .

On the phone, he asked calmly: “Is Ben here at the hospital in Twin Falls, or did they take him to the hospital in Boise?”

“Weston,” she said. “He’s dead.”

It took a moment for his brain to process that his 27-year-old brother, his best friend and work partner, had hung himself with an extension cord while his pregnant wife and 2-year-old son lay in bed.

“Once I realized that Ben was actually dead and there was nothing anyone could do, I lost my composure,” McCarron said. “It was a rare instance when I was unable to remain calm.”

While grieving, McCarron said, he started thinking about the “big picture” and what he was doing with his life. “I realized that here it was, a decade after I had first thought of medical school,” he said. “I had been doing other jobs, but none of them seemed to truly matter. I wasn’t helping people. I wasn’t helping to improve the world. I had been waiting for the right moment to come along. I realized that the right moment would never come. I was going to turn 30. If I was going to make medical school happen, I just had to do it.”

His near-perfect Medical College Admission Test score, life experiences and desire to make a significant impact in community health care attracted top 10 medical schools, including Washington University. With an offer of tuition assistance from the School of Medicine, he left Idaho for Missouri.

“Weston jumps at the chance to learn, teach and participate,” said Mark D. Levine, MD, associate professor in emergency medicine. “Even when asked by residents to play the role of a hallucinating patient for a simulation session, he went all out and received kudos for his acting abilities.”

McCarron has been open with his classmates regarding his past. He generously shares his perspective as a nontraditional, older medical student with low-income, rural roots.

During his second year of medical school, he and his classmates, in a small-group session, were challenged to figure out why so many patients at the free clinic did not follow up with a primary care doctor. Many of his classmates didn’t understand why someone wouldn’t want regular checkups.

“I lived this, so, to me, it was obvious,” he said. “Nobody had primary care doctors. You went to the doctor if you had a problem. Otherwise, you didn’t want to pay $100, or whatever the fee, for a visit when nothing was wrong. It was $100 you couldn’t spare. Even if you had insurance and, say, the co-pay cost $35 — well, that’s food money or gas money. Of course they’re not going to follow up with a primary care doctor.”

McCarron added: “I definitely think my background lends itself to emergency medicine. I understand people feeling desperate. My goal is to get them to feel better, both physically and mentally. I’m finally on a career path that allows me to do good in the world.”

Read more about the Class Acts of 2019 here.
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