Balamurali Ambati, MD was not your average premed student. The premed student, who at the age of 17 graduated from Mount Sinai School of Medicine and entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the Youngest Doctor is now 34. Today, Dr. Ambati is an Ophthalmologist, Educator, and Researcher currently working at the University of Utah. What was life like for him as a premed? Dr. Ambati talked to PreMedLife magazine about making it through his pre-medical years, his drive and motivation to pursue medicine, what becoming the world’s youngest doctor was like, and donating his time overseas with a Flying Eye Hospital.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in medicine?
I became a doctor for several reasons. When I was 4 years old, I was burned on both my legs and I was in the hospital for about three months. I had three surgeries at the time for skin grafts and so on. This was a very formative experience – just seeing the doctors and nurses. And as I got older I enjoyed biology and that seemed to fit well. My uncle was a physician and I was able to see a little bit of what he did. So all of those things were the main factors.

Your Wikipedia page says that you were doing Calculus at the age of 4, how true is that?

Well, I don’t quite remember but my parents say that I was, so I take them at their word.

How much of an influence did your parents have on your decision to become a doctor?

Critical. Everything I’ve done is due to God’s grace, family support. My parents and brother were very vital – helping me learn at home as well as opening doors because of all the administrative resistance that I experienced at various stages because of my age. They were very important.

Do you remember your medical school interviews?

I remember the interviews. I was admitted to one out of nine of the schools I applied to, but all you need is one.

Do you remember if any of the questions you were asked during your medical school interviews particularly easy or difficult to answer?

There were some interviewers that were hostile because I was very young. It is what it is. I did the best that I could at the time. So let’s see – I was interviewing when I was age 13 and some interviewers would be hostile in a sense of asking questions like “how would you react to seeing a naked man or a naked woman?” I don’t remember how I answered the questions but that was a tough question at the time.

Do you remember how you prepared for the MCAT?
Yeah – I took the MCAT in April of my Junior year in college and I basically took a practice exam on old test questions every Saturday during the Spring semester from January to April and studied two MCAT review guides. Those were the main things I did.

In general, do you think you had to sacrifice a lot during your college years to get where you are now?
Well, I didn’t smoke, or drink, or do drugs. NYU was a commuter school at the time – 60% of the students commuted from home so there wasn’t that much of a party life sort to speak. I’m sure I missed the parties that did happen. But I don’t think I scarified anything important. I made a lot of great friends, I had a lot of great times, and a wonderful experience.

What do you think best prepared you during your college years to be successful in medical school?
Well, NYU has a very challenging curriculum – organic chemistry was my hardest class. And going from high school where I breezed through most of my classes to hitting a wall in organic chemistry was good preparation for showing me that I had to step my game up a notch. And that experience of a much higher level of competition was very humbling.

What would you say was the most challenging time for you during your college years as a premed?
Getting through organic chemistry was the most challenging time for me.

What’s the best advice you ever received as a college student?
Dr. Edward McNelis was my mentor and he was my organic chemistry professor. He was a great man and unfortunately he passed away several years ago. He was an exquisite gentleman, and he told me to never forget what it’s like to be a student. I think a lot of doctors forget their training years and treat students poorly.

What issue in health care do you think premeds should be most aware of?
I’d say that every premed should understand what they’re getting into and understand their own reasons for doing medicine. I think unfortunately a lot of premed students do medicine because their family tells them to or because they’re a nerd and they think among medicine, law, and business, medicine is the best one or is the most financially secure one. All of those reasons are not good reasons because that is a recipe for being unhappy later.

We compare ourselves to our peer groups and so when you’re in college you’re a nerd or a geek or a jock or an artsy-type person and nerds tend to do medicine, law, physics, or engineering and it’s a lot easier to have a good paying job in your mid-20 and not have much loans if you do law business or engineer or something like that and that’s the difference between medicine.

I think a lot of people go into medicine thinking that they’ll make all this money and have this great life, when in fact the truth is the average medical student is going to take out $300-400K in loans by the time they graduate and is going to sacrifice their early 20s and 30s. They are also going to work 80-100 hours per week through residency and fellowships and after all of that, 60-65 hours a week.

People don’t understand the time budget of life. What I mean by that is that there are only 168 hours per week and we need to sleep about 50 and to live your life in terms of commuting, showing, and eating and going to the bathroom that’s another 20 hours per week, so we’re already down to 90 useful hours per week. And if you’re spending 80 – 90 hours per week on medicine, that means you give up family, hobbies, etc etc for a long time.

I’m sort of an anomaly because i finished all my medical training by the time I was 24. But the average person finishes their medical training when they’re 32, 33, or 35 years old depending on the field they choose. So if you are eliminating everything else until your mid-30s, that has huge implications for the rest of your life and I don’t think a lot of people consider that.

So I think trying to consider what kind of life you want to lead and when you want to do different things in your life in terms of job, career, family, children, and enjoying life, all those things in terms of the phases in life, I think is something a lot of people don’t consider.

Is there anything that premeds have access to now that you wish you had when you were in college like iPhone study apps or etextbooks?
Not really. I went to medical school before the Internet and I think I’m glad that I did.

Are there any courses you didn’t take in college but wish you would have?
I wish I had taken a Materials Science class. I also wish I had taken more economics classes. However, I addressed the latter by pursuing an MBA which I graduated from two years ago. And I wish I would have taken some more literary classes.

Has your career matched the hopes you has as a little boy when you decided that you wanted to be a doctor?
I love my career. I’m trying to remember what my hopes and dreams were as a little boy. I love what I do. I am very happy. I’m in a field where I can help people see. I take off the patch after cataract surgery and I see the patient smile and that’s a wonderful feeling. And do I’m really happy to be doing it.

What attracted you to Ophthalmology?
Ophthalmology is something that I choose because in medical school you go through different rotations. I liked Internal Medicine, General Surgery, and Pediatrics – I feel like my specialty combines all of those. You see all kinds of diseases, you do exquisite surgery, you see patients of all ages – in what other field could I be a transplant surgeon, a prosthetic surgeon, an emergency surgeon, do international and overseas work? I conduct wonderful research as well. It’s really a very nice combination.

Is there anything you dislike about your profession as a physician-investigator?
I don’t care for paperwork and insurance companies.

What do you enjoy most about being a doctor?
Ophthalmology is a field where you really can say “let there be light”.

Can you talk a little bit about The Flying Eye hospital?
Obits is a non-profit organization that does free surgery around the world. It is a wide body plane. There’s a clinic area, a laser room, and behind that is the operating room, and then after that is the recovery room. It’s the world’s only flying hospital outside of the US military. Next week I’m actually going to Indonesia for two weeks to do cataract surgery and transplant surgery. It’s a great experience being able to restore vision around the world.

– See more at: