A Family Affair
By Michael Vitez
There are four members of the Jennings family — the triplet sisters and their brother Johnny — at Temple’s hospital and medical school.
Dr. John Jennings, 32, chief resident in orthopedic surgery, came first. He has trained nine years now on North Broad Street as student and resident. He was surprised his sisters decided to follow him to medical school — “against medical advice,” he jokes.
Two of the triplets, Rachel and Tara, came next. They fought the urge — both parents are doctors — but finally relented. They are now third year students at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine.
In August came Erin, the last holdout, after a detour on Wall Street.
“Students, doctors, pretty much everyone is confused when they see me,” said Erin, a first year medical student. “There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t run into someone who thinks I’m one of them. I get a lot of blank stares. I just say, `I’m the other.’ ”
The Jennings sisters are 27. Erin, the last to arrive at Temple, was born first. “I’m the oldest,” she says. “It’s pretty obvious.”
The family is from Macungie, PA, near Allentown, and all three sisters are terrific athletes, recruited to play division one field hockey. Tara played at Duke, Rachel at Virginia and Erin at Princeton.
Who is the best athlete?
“That would be me,” said Tara.
“That’s the worst argument that you can ever start,” said Erin. “I don’t think it’s ever stopped since we were five.”
“If you took the mean of our four years in college,” said Rachel, “I had the most successful teams.”
Their father is a hand surgeon, and their mother trained as a surgeon but now works in medical administration. All the children say they never felt pressure to go into medicine. “They said over and over, if you can see yourself doing any other profession, do that,” said Erin.
The sisters all tried.
“When you grow up with two parents who are doctors, you try your best to push that away,” said Tara. “And I did that. I took English classes. I tried to be as adventurous as I could. I took a writing class. I really tried to experience a lot of different things. I did a summer internship in sports marketing. Finally, I succumbed. `Fine. I’ll do it.’ ”
“We just grew up in an environment where we talked about and saw a lot of medicine,” said Rachel. “My dad was on call every other night growing up. We saw he missed a lot of stuff, and it’s sort of in spite of that we all came to medicine. We all just have a love and passion for it.”
They also saw how happy their brother was.
“We had all interacted with his friends,” said Rachel, “and we saw his perspective, and he absolutely loved it. And he really excelled here. Always talked about the exposure he got, and the skills he got, the relationships he formed.”
Three of six groomsmen in his wedding were from medical school. It should be noted that he is also now the father of nine-month old twins. He knows they will be best friends for life.
John made sure his sisters understood the hard truths about residency and their career choice — the statistics about depression and suicide among medical students and residents, as well as the time, cost, and sacrifice involved.
“You’re effectively making $3 an hour as a resident,” he summarized the other day. “You come into an environment that’s fraught with litigation. And you look at how our medical spending has gone up, compensation is actually going down.”
But he also says, “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.” He used the analogy of a great shot in golf to explain the sublime moments in medicine. “The one time you groove the ball keeps you going for the next ten shots in the lake. You make a difference. You tangibly feel it was worth showing up at 5 in the morning and leaving at 8 or 11 at night. People count on you.”
He leaves Temple this summer for a fellowship at the Rothman Institute. He plans to be a hand surgeon like his father.
He said he was definitely surprised all three sisters chose medicine.
“If anything,” he added, “it’s more admirable that they saw my parents go through it and me go through it and they still wanted to do it.”
By their senior year of college, eyes open, both Tara and Rachel had decided to go to medical school. They wanted to go together. They wanted to go to Temple. Because they had been English majors, and hadn’t completed the prerequisite courses, they went to a postbac program together in New York City for two years.
Erin, an economics major at Princeton, was also in New York City at that time, working in finance.
“I liked my job,” said Erin. “I found it to be challenging, but (she sighed) it’s hard being in a medical family and comparing anything you do with what they do. Any small win for me paled in comparison.”
“When they got into medical school,” she said of her sisters, “it made things real for me… I am so tied to their experience just being a triplet it’s impossible to ignore it. I saw my sisters kill themselves to take the MCAT. I want to have that kind of excitement and passion about my job.”
She walked away from a New York salary, knowing medical school would put her into debt. “I needed to just go with my gut on this one and take a chance,” she said
She attended a Postbac at Thomas Jefferson University, and then followed her sisters to Temple.
For Tara and Rachel, who lived together their first two years, med school has been everything they hoped.
“We fell in with the Temple postbacs,” said Rachel “We all have pot lucks and we all hang out. We have a great friend group. We support each other. That’s extremely important in medicine.”
“Most of the people in our class,” she added, “know the difference between us.”
As for this, their third year, Rachel says, “I can honestly say I’ve loved every single rotation.”
Both she and Tara did a trauma surgery rotation last summer, helping with chest compressions, watching bilateral thoracotomies. Tara got to do a heart massage with Dr. Amy Goldberg in the trauma bay. Rachel accompanied a resident to tell a family their loved one had died.
On clinical rounds in the hospital, third year medical students are typically at the bottom of the food chain. But Rachel and Tara both said they’ve been encouraged to be part of the team. A few times, Rachel said, after she made a diagnosis and presented a plan, “the attending said, ‘Sounds good, let’s do it.’ ”
Both Rachel and Tara did an orthopedics elective and accompanied their brother into surgery. He has also been advising them about specialties. Neither has made a decision yet.
“I just spent a rotation with Dr. O’Gurek,” said Tara, referring to Dr. David O’Gurek, a family medicine physician who also runs the outpatient suboxone program for opioid addicts. “I’ve never been happier that I went into medicine than after that rotation,” Tara added. “I saw the patients how they responded to him, how grateful they were to have a doctor like that who cared so much…He was born to do that job.
“I walked out of that rotation and felt I was an improved medical student times 10,” Tara said. “I was an improved person.”
O’Gurek had this to say about Tara: “She’s one of those special students, who, when she moves onward you are proud to have as a colleague and one that you want to be your doctor.” He noted her humility, work ethic and rapport with patients. “Working with her reminds you of why you teach medicine and you hope that she learns as much from you as you learn from her.”
But then he paused, looked concerned, and stressed that’s not to say the sisters aren’t just as good. He just hasn’t worked closely with them yet!
When Erin arrived this fall, she moved in with Rachel. Tara moved out to live with her boyfriend, a Penn medical student she’s dated since college.
“It’s more demanding than I anticipated,” said Erin. “I would always give Rachel and Tara grief about staying up so late and studying ten hours a day, but now I’m realizing it’s necessary.”
Erin definitely benefits having her sisters around. They let her know, for instance, what to focus on when studying for exams. “I would never thank them out loud for this,” she said, “but they did a pretty good job their first two years academically and socially, so I’ve been able to go off their coattails in that sense.”
Erin has embraced school, and is president of the Temple Emergency Action Corps (TEAC), which is running a student trip to Puerto Rico over spring break.
The biggest negative, she said, is spending so much time in the library as a first year student and seeing her sisters have these incredible experiences in the hospital during their third year. “I wish sometimes I could fast forward,” Erin said.
There have been awkward moments. “One of my anatomy professors told me three weeks into it, `I was so confused that you were here again doing anatomy…’” Erin said. And a first year classmate was sure she saw Erin in the ED, just weeks after starting school, doing an ultrasound exam on a patient, something more appropriate for a third or fourth year student.
“I thought you were the biggest gunner in the world,” the classmate told her, using a term for an over-the-top ambitious and competitive medical student.
For the record, there is a fifth Jennings sibling, Jason, 30.
“He can’t stand the sight of blood,” said Tara.
“He’s freaked out by our conversations,” says Rachel.
“He says if I know one thing, it’s that I don’t want to be a doctor,” said Erin.
Jason has had an interesting path. He went to law school for a year, worked as a ski instructor out west, taught school in Houston, and now attends the Wharton School of Business. He just accepted a job with a consulting company in Denver.
Enrollment at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine seems unlikely. But you never know.
Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. Michael.email@example.com