Even Penn & Teller couldn't have made this much magic with a deck of cards.
It is Match Day and the members of the charter class of the UNLV School of Medicine are sitting at decorated tables spaced out on the lawn of the Shadow Lane campus, a red deck of cards in hand.
Dr. Neil Haycocks, vice dean for academic affairs and education, begins a countdown just before 9 a.m., the time when graduating medical students nationwide simultaneously learn where they're headed to complete the final step in their training: their residency program.
10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ...
Dr. Marc J. Kahn, the school's dean, had kicked off the morning playing the "Reveille" on his trumpet. He hadn't played in a year and asked everyone to cut him some slack. The musical interlude gave way to his heavier message: The role the School of Medicine is playing in helping address Nevada's severe shortage of doctors.
Many in the charter class matched here in Nevada — 18 in all — but for the 32 headed out of state, they'd always have a home in the Silver State.
"For those of you who are leaving, we want you back," Kahn said.
... 6 ... 5 ... 4 ...
An Elvis impersonator hopped on stage along with a showgirl decked out in scarlet feathers. He dusted off the moldiest medical joke of all: "Doctor, it hurts when I go like this … Well, don't go like that." She danced while he brought out a crowd-rallying "Viva Las Vegas." That went over better than the gag.
... 3 ... 2 ... 1.
With that, each student opened the personalized deck of cards they’d been handed. An envelope was just too pedestrian for this ceremony. The first card off the top revealed where each student was going. And suddenly it was like 50 simultaneous slot machines all coming up sevens. Screams. Hugs. More than a little jumping.
"I wasn't really processing what could be on the other side of those cards," soon-to-be-M.D. Johnnie Woodson said. "I really didn't want to go in with any sort of expectations. It's a lot of anxiety, and a lot of excitement, too. I set my mind that no matter what was on that card, I was going to be happy."
All 50 students graduating this May have landed a residency program. Normally, the process would involve traveling to schools to see which programs students feel like would be a good fit and trying to impress during exhausting interviews. Students then rank their top choices. Meanwhile, residency programs do the same. The final match is decided by an algorithm maintained by the National Resident Matching Program.
This year, the pandemic forced the future doctors to do those interviews online, making it easier and less costly to investigate more programs. But that also meant a more extensive list of schools to ultimately choose from.
"I thought I had my rank list ready Day 1," Woodson said. "The next three to four weeks, I changed it a dozen times, trying to figure out where I could see myself the next four years. I changed it seven minutes before the deadline to where I had it originally a month before.”
Woodson will be doing his residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque — not his first choice, but somehow the algorithm got it just right.
“I woke up this morning thinking 'I wish I put [New Mexico] No. 1 because I think I'd be happiest there.' I opened up that card this morning, and I couldn't believe it because there was the name that popped into my head when I woke up."
No such mind-changing for Ginger Christian, who did her undergraduate work at UNLV. She knew she wanted to stay in Las Vegas all along.
Christian is one of two future OB/GYN doctors from UNLV this Match Day. Of the 50 graduating students, 10 will pursue family medicine, 10 will specialize in internal medicine, six will go into pediatrics, and the rest will enter disciplines ranging from psychiatry and surgery to radiology and neurology.
"I grew up in Las Vegas," Christian said. "I truly wanted to stay here and learn from those I was learning from during my third and fourth year. This is a great school, a great place to train as an OB/GYN. I really wanted UNLV and I got my No. 1. I'm very excited to stay in my hometown and train here and give back to my community."
Residency marks a major change in their working dynamic — from learning to doing. From classmates to colleagues. The cohorts in medical schools nationwide are much bigger compared to residencies.
"One thing I've said to some of the students is when you go to medical school, you're joining a team," Haycocks said. "When you match into a residency program, you're really joining a family. It's in that family where you really learn your craft. On [graduation day] May 7, we will call them all doctors because they will have earned that title, but it's residency that makes you feel like one.
“Nothing can take away that feeling when you start realizing you actually have responsibility and authority to do things that you've never had before — when someone says 'Get a doctor' and you're looking around and then realize it's you."
Over the past four years, the charter class has paved the way in UNLV’s nascent school. They were the first class admitted, the first to dive into the curriculum, the first to match, and soon, the first to graduate.
Residencies start in July. That gives these students a breather before they have to learn to shoulder even more responsibilities in training before eventually joining hospital staffs, medical groups, or forming their own practices.
Christian and her family will travel to Cancun. Woodson is just looking forward to the pause.
"If I had to sum it up, it would probably be like the end of a marathon," he said. "The finish line where people are waiting for you and have the bottles of water to shower you, that's what it feels like. It had its ups and downs, but we had so much support. I'm ready to kick back and relax a little bit."
But just until July.