A Soldier Faces a New Battle: Medical School

June 7, 2010

Luke Smith−Iraqi veteran, father, husband, medical student− is laughing uncontrollably.

His two-year old daughter Lilly, has presented him with a hamburger bun. No meat, just a bun.

“I have no idea where she gets these things,’’ says Smith as he thanks her.

Smith, Lilly and his wife Kathy are in Melbourne, Fla., packing up their belongings for a move to Michigan where next month he begins his clinical rotations at Providence Hospital Center.

After two years at the American University of the Caribbean in St. Maarten− where he learned the rigors of fatherhood while simultaneously juggling sleepless nights to study for copious exams− he’ll begin this phase of his medical school career with an astounding accolade: a Step 1 score of 258/99, a stunning feat by any standard and yet it’s not something he dwells on.

His simple advice to students preparing for the same exam: “Learn the stuff as well as you can when you’re doing it so all you’re doing [before the exam] is reviewing stuff that you already know pretty well.”

That’s it. No major fanfare or celebration. He has a U-haul truck to pack full of possessions in a few days.

Smith indeed is a modest guy whose journey to medical school is somewhat circuitous.

He majored in food science and human nutrition as an undergraduate at the University of Florida with a minor in military and classical studies.

He had a dual love for the military and medicine, love affairs fostered throughout his childhood.

His step-father served in the army, his grandfather served in the navy and as an engineer for NASA who was responsible for designing many of the medical experiments that took place aboard shuttles and during space missions. His uncle, Dr. Henry Floyd ’81, is an AUC  alumnus who is now a radiologist in Orlando, Fla.

He couldn’t shake the image of the Sept. 11 attacks from his memory. The call of the military won.

“I knew medical school would be my path eventually, but when I got into college I wanted to go to the army more,’’ he said.

As an ROTC member he was commissioned as an officer. He was deployed in April 2006.

But there was another love story afoot.

He’d fallen in love with his best friend Kathy while studying at the University of Florida. The two married in a City Hall ceremony in December 2005, just four months before his deployment.

It was a bittersweet start for their marriage said Kathy.

“While most couples are adjusting for married life, we were spending our first year apart,’’ she said.

Luke lucked out with an internet connection in his barracks so they communicated via email and video chat as often as they could. She sent care packages and cards each week.

And she stayed busy by pursuing a master’s degree in psychology.

“School is what kept me busy. If it were not for the exams and papers, I probably would have stayed glued to CNN the entire time Luke was deployed,’’ she said.

Luke, in turn, faced the realities of war.

His platoon searched daily for insurgents and scoured the streets of Baghdad for improvised explosive devices.

Injury and death were constant.

His platoon once checked an area for IEDs and found none. Minutes later a second team was hit by the hidden explosives. A soldier was killed instantly.

The memory of that dying soldier lingers.

“There weren’t a lot of good days in Iraq. You just made the best of what each day would bring,’’ said Smith.

In the midst of fighting to stay alive he’d also decided to pursue medical school once he’d completed his  tour in Iraq. He searched for IEDs by day and studied for the MCAT at night.

“I decided to go to med school there, partly because of what I saw,’’ he said.

It was now April 2007 and his year in the battlefield had come to an end. He had served his country and remains proud he says, but the best moment of his days at war was the day he and every single person from his platoon made it home.

“We brought our entire unit home, we didn’t lose anyone,’’ Smith said. “I was happy to be home.”

So was Kathy.

“The day Luke returned home from Iraq is a vivid memory that I will carry with me for the rest of my life,’’ she said. “We had done it and our love was stronger on his return.’’

Luke Smith with wife Kathy on their wedding day

Kathy would finally be able to plan the wedding she’d dreamed of.

That June, the two exchanged their vows before 200 family and friends.

Then their lives snowballed with three major events happening within a 10-month period: Luke’s acceptance and enrollment at AUC, the end of his army career and the birth of their daughter Lilly.

“Everything had to happen to plan, there was little room for error,’’ said Kathy.

But plans have a way of going off course.

Lilly arrived three weeks early. She was just six weeks old when they arrived on St. Maarten.

Despite Luke’s rigorous schedule as a student, teaching assistant, tutor, orientation advisor and member of the judiciary committee, the family survived the rigors of medical school and even thrived they say, because of their experience with the military. Kathy also credits the spouse’s organization for being a tremendous source of support to help wives and significant others cope with being home alone. She served as the group’s vice president.

“The army made me thankful for the time we had as a family,’’ said Kathy. “Luke was gone a lot, but he always made time for the family.’’

Even when he would spend 12 hour stints at the library or when they lost power on the island for the fourth time in a day, she had no complaints: “I was happy he was home at night and not on a bunker in Baghdad.’’

Though his basic sciences days are behind him, Smith encourages incoming and current students to find an outlet away from studying to help maintain a balance.

“I’ve seen too many students just study without ever taking a break and now they’re burned out and failing,’’ Smith said.

“Take breaks, have a relief. Go to the beach. Enjoy the island and when you’re studying, do it with a group. It’s a great way to sit there and talk amongst yourselves, plus it makes it fun because it isn’t the monotony of just sitting there reading by yourself,’’ he said.

Smith is still undecided about what he’ll eventually specialize in but is excited about the different areas he’ll see in action during his rotations at Providence.

Smith, with Kathy and daughter Lilly at the beach on St. Maarten at Christmas

And he is grateful more than anything to Kathy for sacrificing her own career so he could pursue his. She’ll pursue her doctorate in psychology once they settle on a permanent home when he graduates.

“Without Kathy’s support, I would not have been able to succeed in medical school,’’ said Smith.

“ Having her and Lilly there with me was a fantastic support system, and each day I could see why I needed to work as hard as I could to succeed,’’ said Smith.

“Kathy was very patient with the long hours of study, the hectic schedule, and the rigors and uncertainty of island life.  She really was the secret to my success.’’