Tavis Apramian’s journey as a student has been a unique one. The first time he was forced to choose between two passions, he chose academia over athletics, but the second time he faced a decision between two passions, he chose ‘all of the above.’ Apramian is now flourishing in two very different fields – medicine and writing.
In 2008, Apramian completed an unusual double major as a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Biology and English at Carleton. The very next year, he achieved a Master of Arts in English at Carleton. From there, Apramian packed his things and moved to New York to complete a Master of Science in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University in 2010. Today, Apramian continues on a dual track at the University of Western Ontario, where he will complete his M.D. in the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry as well as a Ph.D. in the Faculty of Health Science. Apramian’s research focus – language practices in training and assessment in surgical education – grows out of his experience as a student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Carleton.
The influence of Apramian’s degrees in English extends far beyond his research. As a physician in training, Apramian uses his skills as an analyst and creator of literature to write stories about his experiences in a medical environment, in which matters of life and death arise on an hourly basis. Through his writing, Apramian articulates these profound moments that are too often described as indescribable. While making sense of his own surroundings, Apramian also writes to give his readers insight into the dramatic world of medicine.
Apramian has now established himself as a star student in two fields, but there was a time when he took a detour on the scenic route. Like countless young Canadians, upon graduating high school Apramian decided to move West to Canmore, Alberta. Yes, the laid-back, carousing culture of Canada’s rugged and snowcapped regions had its appeal, but Apramian made the move to focus on his passion for cross-country skiing. After a year or so, the dream of becoming a professional athlete had lost its luster, but continued to influence his decision to return to school.
“I was treading snow, so to speak. So I decided that I might as well start getting myself educated, and, true to form I picked Carleton because at that time they had the best cross-country ski team in the country… CIS champs,” said Apramian.
After a couple of years at Carleton, Apramian found himself in a familiar situation – things weren’t going as planned. His injuries began to add up, while his grades began to fall. “I just never really learned how to be a student in high school. I was an athlete first and a student second, and my early university results reflected that,” Apramian admits.
Once again, Apramian found himself at a crossroads: coast through school or make the most of his degree. After two years as a student-athlete, Apramian made the decision to leave his sport behind.
Then, in his third year, Apramian did a complete one-eighty as a student. In twelve months, his grades went from mediocre to exceptional. This was not easy, and he attributes his change of course to three shifts in his approach to school and life.
The first step was identifying his interests and aspirations. Apramian changed his major from English to a double major in English and Biology, and he mentions how crucial it was for him to embrace the distinct culture of each discipline.
The second element of Apramian’s success was the three summers he spent working at the Ottawa Children’s Treatment Centre on a “top-notch” team lead by Recreation Therapist Emily Glossop. Here, Apramian learned about collaboration from his colleagues, about how to work as part of a team in the care of another person, and he drew inspiration from the children he worked with on a daily basis.
The third—and, he says, “most important”—element to Apramian’s success was his relationships with Carleton faculty. It was English professor Franny Nudelman who would tell Apramian about the MSc degree in Narrative Medicine at Columbia in New York. And it was English professor Dana Dragunoiu who initially helped Apramian change course. “She didn’t compromise and tell me that it was all going to be okay. She told me that I could do better and that the only way to do that was to care to look deeply, to question my assumptions about myself and others, and to see the excitement in scholarship,” said Apramian. Dragunoiu was also the first person Apramian ever told he wanted to be a doctor. In response, she told him about William Carlos Williams, who wrote some of the best poetry of the twentieth century and delivered more than 2000 babies in his career as a physician. “I remember very clearly that Tavis was encouraged by the fact that going into medicine would not mean giving up entirely his literary ambitions,” Dragunoiu recalls.
When Apramian decided to take a Masters in English at Carleton, he did so with the intent of eventually being accepted to medical school. The connections between English and medicine may not be obvious, but in many ways there is actually a very natural fit. As Apramian explains, “most researchers of all types start with ideas and then, in science just as in art, we break those ideas into smaller pieces. We categorize them and separate them from each other so that we can try to gain a fuller understanding of the pieces. When we try to put them back together, it turns out that the most effective way to transmit that synthesis is through story. Scientific papers, literary criticism, and even patient care all move through story.” Thus, storytelling, reading and writing remain essential skills for Apramian as a medical student.
Despite continuing to work and learn in a field that would, at first glance, seem to be on the opposite end of the spectrum from English, Apramian’s undergraduate and graduate degrees in the Arts play a prominent and necessary role in his current research. Apramian is set to graduate from medical school in 2020, and because his training in English has allowed him to become a more specialized, more compassionate med student, his patients will most certainly be grateful for his BA and MA in English.