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Student Spotlight – Meghan Bullock ’20: Changing Lanes

If she hadn’t known better, Meghan Bullock ’20, then a first-year medical student at the Geisel School of Medicine, might have thought the opportunity had been created just for her.

“Heading into the summer of 2017, I was looking to get some more research experience abroad,” says Bullock. “I asked Dr. Lisa Adams, my faculty mentor for the Global Health Scholars program at Geisel, if she knew of anyone doing research in a Spanish speaking country, possibly in oncology and palliative care.”

Adams referred Bullock to Linda Kennedy, MEd, associate director for strategic planning and global oncology at Dartmouth’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center, who for many years has been helping to lead community-building activities and cancer research and prevention programs in Honduras.

As it turned out, Kennedy’s colleague Kathy Lyons, ScD, needed help with a palliative care research project she was helping to lead. It’s goal was to test whether having nurses at a cancer hospital in San Pedro Sula make weekly telephone calls to chemotherapy patients would help them better manage their symptoms.

With Bullock’s background and experience—which included fluency in Spanish, being an oncology nurse before coming to medical school, and having already worked in the city of San Pedro Sula for a year as a volunteer in an HIV/AIDS clinic—she turned out to be “the last piece in the puzzle, effectively making Kathy’s project run much smoother,” says Kennedy.

Meghan Bullock '20 with hospitalist Darwin Zeron, MD, at La Liga Contra el Cancer hospital in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (photo courtesy Meghan Bullock '20)

Bullock worked with Lyons, a psycho-oncology researcher at the Cancer Center, to develop the materials and a mechanism for tracking results. She then spent six weeks implementing the project in Honduras, staying with a family she’d grown close to while previously living in the country.

“My role was to work with the co-investigators to train the nurses in the use of the manual and scripts that we designed, adapting them to their cultural context, and also in the format of the telephone calls,” explains Bullock. “It included running them through simulation calls and different scenarios, and then troubleshooting and making adjustments for any issues that came up.”

Kennedy and Lyons say Bullock’s dedicated involvement was crucial to the project’s success. “I really enjoyed working with the physicians and nurses down there and learning more about oncology in another country,” says Bullock. “And it was great to be part of such an important project—palliative care is something that’s very limited in Honduras, and many patients have to travel long distances to receive care.

“It was also wonderful to reconnect with old friends; I feel like I have family there,” adds Bullock, whose special connection to the country has played a pivotal role in her path to medicine.

Growing up, Bullock’s own family moved often—from Minnesota to Kansas to Oregon, and finally to Arizona—due to her father’s work as an Episcopal priest. Her strong interests in Spanish and health care began early, influenced by encouragement at school and at home (her mother was a nurse and a nurse practitioner).

Bullock graduated with a BA in public health from Johns Hopkins University in 2005. While there, she volunteered at health clinics in Baltimore and Madrid, Spain, where she spent a semester abroad, and also competed as a varsity distance swimmer for four years (sharing the same practice pool with Olympian Michael Phelps).

“I actually started out as premed in college, but as I got closer to applying to medical schools I realized I didn’t really know why I wanted to be a physician,” she recalls. “I thought it would be important to have more experience to help me decide which direction to go in the future.”

After she graduated, Bullock searched for her vocation in a variety of health care settings. She worked in the inpatient psychiatry unit at Phoenix Children’s Hospital as a behavioral health and case manager technician, in a physical therapy clinic, and in the (aforementioned) HIV/AIDS clinics in Honduras.

“Inspired by my experience in Honduras, I decided to enroll in nursing school,” says Bullock, who graduated as a registered nurse from the University of Arizona in 2010.

For several years, she worked on the inpatient hematology/oncology bone marrow transplant unit at the University of Arizona Medical Center, before moving to an oncology infusion clinic in Tucson to gain outpatient experience. She also continued to go back to Honduras as a volunteer interpreter and nurse on medical mission trips.

“I loved nursing, the relationships I had with the patients, and the challenge that came with it every day,” says Bullock, who considers her former field to be great preparation for medicine. “But I was always motivated to learn more about the pathophysiology of disease and the role that physicians play in diagnosing, managing, and treating patients. I think with all of those experiences I had working as a nurse, I can now confidently say that medicine is my passion—this is what I want to do.”

Meghan Bullock '20 at a friend's home near San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (photo courtesy of Megan Bullock '20)

As a second-year student at Geisel, Bullock is balancing her busy academic schedule with activities outside the classroom such as serving as a team member of the medical school’s Migrant Health Project—which provides comprehensive medical care to migrant farm workers in the area’s dairy and agricultural businesses—and swimming for a local masters swim team at the Upper Valley Aquatic Club.

“I think being a swimmer has taught me discipline, helped me to stay organized and manage stress, and the friendships I’ve gained through it have been really important,” Bullock says. “It’s also a good lifelong exercise.”

Dartmouth’s close-knit community, supportive learning environment, and ample global health opportunities were key factors in Bullock choosing Geisel. “When I started last year, I had been out of school for a while and struggled with some of the difficult science classes,” she says. “But I really felt supported here by the faculty, staff, and my classmates. And I’ve made some really good friendships.

“So far, the experience of moving from nursing to medicine has exceeded what I had hoped for,” says Bullock. “It has made a lot of things I’d seen in my career as a nurse make more sense, and explained a lot of things I never fully understood. I’m loving medical school, and I’m really glad that I made the decision to come to Geisel.”