They entered the UC Irvine School of Medicine with dreams of making a difference someday, five eager students armed with distinctive skills, talents and experiences they hoped could be used to improve human health.

Matt Fradkin believed music could help ailing children. Vincent Whelan thought that having a rare, debilitating disease might make it easier to relate to kids with genetic disorders of their own. Tatianne Velo and Yassir Giron realized that they could, as a team, channel their drive for social justice into widening healthcare access in America’s Latino communities. And Mike O’Leary saw his passion for international travel as a means to provide care in impoverished Third World villages.

After endless hours of intense studying and clinical rotations, these soon-to-graduate students saw their dreams come into focus on Match Day, March 16, when they learned where they will start their careers as doctors.

Match Day is an annual activity that takes place simultaneously at all U.S. medical schools, involving about 16,000 graduating students. At UCI, it’s an emotional, festive event during which the future doctors are called to a podium one at a time to open an envelope and read aloud before hundreds of
family members, friends and classmates the name and location of the hospital where they’ll spend the next three to seven years pursuing postgraduate medical training as a resident physician. This year, 102 UCI med students participated.

“I have never been part of a single event that represented so much to everyone there,” says Fradkin, who will join the pediatrics program at Seattle  hildren’s Hospital this summer. “Literally, opening that envelope, with that one sentence, ‘You have matched at …,’ equals four years or more of nonstop studying and stress, plus our hopes for our future as physicians.”

Bringing music to medicine

A guitarist and singer for the band Honest Iago, Fradkin found an outlet for his musical passion in medicine. In summer 2009, he formed an organization to bring music to young patients’ bedsides — whether for listening, playing or learning. Music to Heal now has more than 50 volunteers, many of them UCI medical students, who perform and teach everything from classical to rap. The group even loans out instruments and MP3 players with vouchers for downloading favorite songs.

“Music therapy is such a great tool; it helps these kids so much with pain management,” says Fradkin, who plans to ultimately become a pediatric oncologist. “Music to Heal will only get bigger. I can’t wait to bring it to Seattle and then keep expanding the program to hospitals around the country and then the world.”

Helping children with genetic conditions

Whelan’s attraction to pediatrics stems from his own experiences. At age 10, he was diagnosed with fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, or FOP, a rare,
incurable disease in which muscles and connective tissue slowly calcify into bone. Interactions with his doctor, renowned orthopedic specialist Dr. Fred
, inspired the young Whelan. “He impressed me,” he says. “I wanted to be like him when I grew up. I wanted to be a doctor.”

Now 25, Whelan has noticeable stiffness in his shoulders and neck, but this won’t limit his ability to treat children as a resident in the UCSF Fresno
pediatrics program.

He hopes to eventually concentrate on youngsters with genetic conditions like his, to give them hope and inspire them as he was. “I really love working with kids and the distinctive pathologies they get,” Whelan says. “And I want to teach them this: Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do something.”

Social justice and family matters

An interest in helping the young and disadvantaged led both Velo and Giron to enroll in UCI’s Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community, the first in the country to train future physician-leaders to address the specific healthcare concerns of America’s largest minority population.

In addition to medical degrees, PRIME-LC students earn master’s degrees in related subjects such as business or public health. Velo and Giron received M.P.H.s in community health sciences from UCLA, which they feel will prepare them to work within the labyrinthine U.S. healthcare system to enact change. The next step they’ll take toward this goal is as residents in the family medicine program at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

“Family medicine is the area where we can intercede most effectively and work for justice for marginalized communities,” Velo says. “Family doctors are poised to provide crucial medical and preventative care and also advocate for an end to the social injustice that harms families and robs them of equal opportunity.”

It’s a subject that hits close to home. While pursuing medical degrees, Velo and Giron fell in love. Last summer, Velo gave birth to their daughter, Vivienne. On Match Day, Vivienne joined her mom and dad at the podium as they opened their envelopes.

Giron and Velo admit that parenthood has changed their perspective. “I’m much more sensitive when I see sick children,” Giron says. “I understand the parents’ concerns.”

“And we’re much more aware of the social issues that allow young families to struggle,” Velo adds.

The world is his clinic

An infant girl also sealed O’Leary’s commitment to medicine. On the first of his many trips to Kenya, he and a couple of other aid workers helped carry a severely dehydrated baby two miles down a dirt road to a makeshift rural clinic for treatment.

“She had chronic diarrhea and desperately needed fluids,” O’Leary recalls. “At the clinic, they got an IV in her, and I felt I’d made a difference. But I found out later that she died the next day. It shook me, and it’s now part of who I am.”

He spends as much time as he can abroad, helping others. Working with Living Room Ministries International, O’Leary has provided AIDS hospice care in
Kenyan clinics. He’s gone into the bush with the Samburu tribe to teach STD awareness. He’s learned Swahili and can speak a few words in a dozen other
languages. He’s also traveled to India with a group of UCI medical students to conduct research and render medical care.

With Match Day behind him, O’Leary will fly this month to Peru, where he will volunteer at a clinic in Collique, a shantytown on the outskirts of Lima. This summer he’ll settle into the general surgery residency program at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, gaining skills to support his objective: bringing healthcare and compassion to the poor globally.

“As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his letter from Birmingham Jail, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” O’Leary says. “My life credo will be to deliver care to those who lack access, because a lack of basic healthcare is most certainly an injustice.”