The Oberlin Stories Project

On finding his “voice” again after so many years of medical training

Tom Carroll ’96

“I am blessed that I remained firmly committed to my seemingly disparate passions for voice and medicine. Professor Miller must have been able to see something then that I never could have appreciated until now.”

Wearing scrubs, gloves, and a mask, Tom performs surgery.

From the first minute I arrived at Oberlin, I knew somehow that I would eventually go to medical school.  However, I had no intention of spending my four undergraduate years entirely in science labs.  I made the choice to major in music so I could enjoy my other passion: music and vocal performance. Interestingly, Oberlin serendipitously paired me with a roommate who shared all of my interests and who also wanted to be a doctor.  
I realized early that applying to medical school with a music degree would be a challenge - especially because I’d completed only the bare minimum science requirements. (The requirements of my music major left little time for additional coursework that might directly impact my medical school application.) For this reason, it came as no surprise when I didn’t get accepted to medical school right away.
I assumed that the admissions officers at medical schools believed an applicant like me - with a music degree and only the bare bones minimum science requirements - to be a crapshoot at best.  The majority of the applicants against whom I was competing had spent their entire four years of undergraduate work in the lab (and every summer doing “research projects” - what those were I had no idea). But I certainly wasn’t ready to give up.

Two years later, after working in a biochemistry lab and taking a graduate level Molecular Biology course at Case Western, I was admitted to several medical schools and finally on my way to doctorhood.  Those who have “unintentionally” taken time off between college and medical school generally agree that the delay can evolve into a great opportunity - this was certainly true for me. It gave me a chance to grow up, live and work, and realize that I truly wanted to become a physician.  As my classmates who entered medical school immediately following college began to burn out midway through their four years of post-graduate training, I was still energized and loving every minute of my medical education.
Years earlier I had blown off (somewhat) a chance conversation with the well-respected and world renowned teacher of singing, Richard Miller, while I was taking voice lessons from one of his graduate students as an Oberlin freshman.  I was singing for Professor Miller in a rare meeting that, I believe, was an opportunity for him to grade the student who was my teacher.  After my lesson, he asked why I wasn’t pursuing voice as a conservatory student, and short of telling him that I had auditioned and been rejected from the Oberlin Conservatory while a senior in high school, I told him about my intentions of becoming a doctor, more specifically a pediatrician.  "No,” he said, “you should become an Otolaryngologist!”  

“An Otolarynwhat?” I thought.  At that point the thought of spending four years in medical school and pursuing a residency that would last longer than three years seemed absurd; who could wait that long to actually start one’s career?
You guessed it.  Thirteen years after graduating from Oberlin and eleven years after beginning medical school, not only did I become an Otolaryngologist, but I spent an additional two years (after the five years of residency) to become a sub-specialty trained Laryngologist who works exclusively in the surgical and medical treatment of voice and swallowing disorders. I graduated from Oberlin in 1996, and in 2009 I am finally starting my first post-training job.  It has been a long road, but the opportunity to take care of professional singers as well as everyday people with voice and laryngeal problems makes me excited to come to work every morning.  My love for voice and music has come full circle.  I still sing, mostly in community choirs and on my own, and still allow music to distract me from the rest of daily life. 

My Oberlin roommate, Ben Jones, encouraged me to write this. Thanks to Oberlin, he embraced his passion for writing and the humanities halfway through our freshman year and changed his plans to attend medical school before it was too late. He now has his dream job as VP for Communications at Oberlin, and I have mine as Director of the Center for Voice and Swallowing at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. He was the best man at my wedding and remains my closest friend, next to my wife.

In my opinion, we are all blessed that Ben decided not to go to medical school and does the work that he does to make Oberlin a better place for future kids like him and me. And I am blessed that I remained firmly committed to my seemingly disparate passions for voice and medicine. Professor Miller must have been able to see something then that I never could have appreciated until now.
It is said that hindsight is 20/20 and thankfully I am not looking back and learning from a mistake; I can see clearly how my path led me to where I am today, and I have Oberlin to thank for it.