On the long and winding road that Amalie Alver has traveled to becoming a physician — she’ll graduate from the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine in May — she’s often taken a taxi.
Not because her family was doing well financially, but because it wasn’t.
When riding in a cab driven by her father, a German immigrant and former long-haul trucker who switched to driving taxis after having children, Alver said she and her brother and sisters “always got interesting looks from classmates when a taxi pulled up to pick us up from school.”
Sometimes, when money was particularly tight, Alver’s father brought her and her two sisters along when he was driving the taxi that also served as the family car, an old Ford Crown Victoria that a police department discarded after the odometer hit 150,000 miles.
“I’m not sure if his passengers liked it all that much, but he was convinced it would result in better tips,” Alver said of her father, who’s still driving a cab in the Portland, Oregon-Vancouver, Washington area. “There must have been some truth to it because one of his regular passengers ended up paying for a majority of my sister’s and my music lessons one year.”
Now a member of AOA, the national medical honor society, Alver had a long journey to becoming a physician. Grants, loans, a restaurant job, and food stamps got her through undergraduate school. She recalls that her father (in divorce proceedings he was awarded full custody of the family’s four children) “wasn’t so much living paycheck to paycheck because there were no paychecks. His income would fluctuate daily. We didn’t buy groceries in bulk because it wasn’t an option financially. I remember McDonald's ran a promotion where you could get 39-cent cheeseburgers. We ate a lot of cheeseburgers.”
Money, or rather the lack of it, never stopped Alver — she received a four-year tuition scholarship to medical school courtesy of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and TSK Architects — from thinking about becoming a doctor, something that began when she was in third grade after physicians helped her toddler sister fight off meningitis. Passionate K-12 teachers, including one instructor who drove home scientific points by jumping up on a table, served to fuel the honor student’s voracious study of science.
Even after her brother joined the Marines when she was 11 and she took on the huge responsibility of largely looking after her younger sisters — “My father worked so much I don’t know when he slept” — she thought of becoming a doctor or a pianist. When she didn’t do as well in music competitions as she would have liked — she played on a keyboard at home and on an actual piano at church — she decided a career in medicine was for her. ”I told myself often that if I became a doctor I could always continue playing music in my spare time.”
While difficult life circumstances haven’t short-circuited her dream of becoming a physician, Alver says a lack of resources made her odyssey to medical school far more difficult. With that in mind, she spearheaded the formation of the First Generation College Graduate and/or Low Income (FGLI) student organization at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine. Its mission is to increase the number of FGLI students who successfully develop a career in medicine. “As medical students,” Alver said, “we can reach out to undergraduates who are from similar backgrounds that don’t have the kind of traditional networking and mentoring support.”
Alver, now in her early 30s and planning to go into emergency medicine, points out that to be accepted to medical school you have to have more than excellent grades and high test scores.
“Med schools want to know you understand what it's like to be a physician. You need to shadow a physician, you need to have letters to support your application from physicians, you need to know how to write your essays in ways that really convey your desire to pursue this profession. You must do lots of volunteer work. Most medical students have a parent, relative, or own family physician that they have as a resource,” she explained.
“Growing up, I didn’t even know that a ‘family doctor’ that you saw yearly existed. It wasn’t a part of our lives. We used the emergency room. I reached out to see if any doctor would allow me to shadow them. I hand-delivered letters to offices and called and sent emails but wasn’t able to find anyone who would take me. Finally, when I was 21 and first got insurance, I set up an appointment with a family medicine resident who agreed to let me shadow her. It took a long time and a lot of self-advocating for me to build additional mentoring relationships.
“It was also very challenging to find time to do all of the extracurriculars that are really required for a competitive medical school application. Since I worked full-time, making time to volunteer and get involved in the community meant lost wages. I want to see that others from low-income backgrounds can navigate the system easier than I did,” she said. “If I had developed the relations with my mentors earlier, it’s possible I could have started medical school years earlier. One of the things I’m most proud of is that I was able to share my experiences with my sister so she knew what to do to get into medical school.”
Soon after she graduated in 2012 from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she majored in biology and the Swedish language, Alver came to realize, after an unsuccessful attempt to get into med school, that she needed to put more emphasis on science, shadowing physicians and volunteering if she wanted to be successful. Then working as a bartender, she left for Boston University, where she would ultimately earn a master’s degree in medical science. Unable to afford Boston’s high rent, she had to live in the suburbs, needing to take two buses and a subway, to get to school. “That experience wasn’t easy but during the time it took me to get to and from school, I really learned better study habits.”
After getting her master’s degree in 2016, Alvers came to Las Vegas, where her Seattle boyfriend moved back home to be with his family. (They married in 2019.) Alver worked as a bartender with the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining group and applied for a spot in the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine’s first class. She was waitlisted, but got into the second class. Today, she’s awaiting Match Day in March, when she learns where she’ll do her emergency medicine residency.
“To me, emergency medicine feels like medicine in its purest form. I want to be able to say, ‘Yes, I will treat you, I will help in whatever way that I can, and it doesn’t matter if you have insurance or the ability to pay.’”