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Osteopathic Medicine

What Inspired a Nutritionist and Dancer to Pursue Osteopathic Medicine

Courtney Merlo, Photo: Courtesy of

My path to medicine was non-traditional to say the least. Coming from an extended family of engineers, healthcare was a brand new field. In undergrad, I quickly discovered my passion for nutrition and graduated with a degree in food science and a concentration in nutrition and dietetics. 

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Deciding to pursue a career as a registered dietitian, I applied for the Registered Dietitian match (much like the medical residency match) and was lucky enough to be placed at an incredible program in my home state of Michigan — Henry Ford Hospital’s Dietetic internship. This internship had a clinical focus, and it was here, that my passion for medicine truly blossomed. I quickly fell in love with the clinical aspects of diagnosis and treatment, and wanted to do more to help heal my patients beyond the scope of nutritional interventions. However, it was not for four more years that I would officially begin my journey to D.O.

Along with nutrition, my other passion in life is dance. In undergrad, I had the privilege to dance for my university dance team, the Clemson University Rally Cats. Following graduation, I was not ready to give up my lifelong dream of a career as a professional dancer.

A rare opportunity

Shortly after matching to the Henry Ford Hospital Dietetic Internship, I saw an advertisement a friend had shared that the Detroit Lions were hosting auditions for their inaugural cheerleading team. Because traditional cheerleading does not translate well in a large NFL stadium, I quickly realized this was my opportunity to pursue my dream of becoming a professional dancer. On a whim, I decided to audition — and made the team.

For the next three years, I completed my dietetic internship and began working as a part-time clinical dietitian at a local hospital, part-time hospice dietitian performing home visits, and part-time performance dietitian for the Detroit Lions Cheerleading team, all while spending my early mornings, nights, and weekends dancing for the NFL. 

During this time, I also spent time shadowing osteopathic and allopathic physicians, volunteering at my local Children’s Hospital, completing wet lab cancer research, and preparing to apply for medical school. It was not easy, but I believe the the hard work, dedication, and perseverance I learned as a professional athlete while working a career in the medical field helped me to be a become a better medical student and future osteopathic physician.

Road to D.O.

My road to D.O. began after researching the differences between the osteopathic and allopathic physician professions. Wanting to do more than nutrition interventions for my patients, but also being passionate about still including wellness and nutrition care into my future practice, the osteopathic profession was a natural fit. Focused on a mind, body, spirit, and holistic approach to care, I could confidently see myself practicing as a D.O. while keeping the part of medicine I already loved in my future practice.

So, four years after graduating from my dietetic internship, I began studying as an osteopathic medical student at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine — my first-choice program.

Although medical school has been challenging, and a global pandemic has most definitely not made it any easier, I strongly believe my life up to this point has prepared me to face these challenges head on. The dedication and determination required to be a successful professional athlete prepared me for the hard work and commitment it takes to study to become a physician. 

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The hours dedicated to nutrition and patient care prepared me for the compassion required to enter a career focused on helping others, and, the time spent balancing extracurricular activities with my prior career prepared me to manage the demanding hours required for a career in medicine. Ultimately, although my path to D.O. was very non-traditional, I know with certainty I am destined for the career that is right for me.

If I could pass along advice to anyone considering pursuing a career as an osteopathic physician, I would say, “Take the time to live out your dreams. Whether it is dance, nutrition, writing, or engineering, there is no pressure to continue to medical school right out of college. The life lessons you learn while taking the time to live out your childhood dreams will only make you a better future physician.”

Special delivery

I can still hear the applause. In fact, I felt my hands almost slip off the box I was carrying as if they, too, were shocked by the noise. Our receptive audience continued clapping until we reached the front door and set our boxes down. “We have 200 face shields and 300 KN95 masks for you,” I proudly said. Although her face was covered by a mask, as I looked into the eyes of the director of nursing at the skilled nursing facility, they said it all. “Thank you,” she whispered through her tears. Her words truly touched my heart forever.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, my medical school education has not continued as planned. At least, not the way I had originally plotted it out. I began January 2020 with an intent to finish at the top of my class, excel as president of the Student Osteopathic Medical Association at my campus, travel to Washington D.C. to represent my institution on Capitol Hill, and start the long process of studying for boards. Armed with an agenda and a purpose, my intent was to have my greatest academic semester yet. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Michigan.

Altruistic in nature, the first thoughts that raced through my head as pandemic-related policies became instituted and coursework moved to a virtual-only learning environment were not academic-related. Instead, I was intent on finding a way to truly impact those personnel serving on the frontlines, facing this pandemic head on. Quickly hearing about the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), I knew this was where I needed to help.

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Answering the call

The next few months were consumed by countless calls to hospitals, nursing homes, homeless shelters, medical clinics, and first responders assessing need for PPE, as well as to national organizations and any companies who had transitioned to PPE production to acquire donations.

Hundreds of hours were spent coordinating PPE item retrievals and deliveries to their final destinations. By utilizing a team of 70 medical student drivers, we were able to deliver PPE items to more than 37 Michigan counties, 240 healthcare facilities, three states, and three countries by the end of July 2020.

Additionally, we coordinated PPE item deliveries to Michigan’s upper peninsula and Texas via a volunteer pilot, and to Illinois hospitals via a team of 70 volunteer motorcycle riders. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan, our team of merely four medical student leaders managed to acquire and deliver over 110,000 PPE items total. It is truly an accomplishment that will most definitely remain with our team for life. 

What is your purpose?

At the National Student Osteopathic Medical Association conference this past fall, the National Membership Director wisely asked, “What is your medical school purpose?” Since hearing this, I have truly contemplated what my purpose is during this time in medical school. 

Although academics play into what I desire to leave this experience with, there are many more components that factor into being a great osteopathic physician. I desire to utilize my education not only to grow my knowledge in medicine, but also to learn how to care for a person as a whole — mind, body and spirit. Although the past few months of my education were not dedicated as intently to academics as I had originally planned, I believe I have grown in my ability to care for people from this experience. 

The PPE drive opened the door to an opportunity to touch the lives of physicians, patients, and people experiencing homelessness, and meet them where they are at with this pandemic. It is this experience that will help me to not only become an osteopathic physician, but a great osteopathic physician.

If you asked me a year ago, if I could picture myself receiving applause for carrying a box of face shields and KN95 masks, I would have laughed. These were everyday items that we took for granted, having a plentiful supply. But, this is only one of many perspectives that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed. 

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If there is one thing I hope the world takes from these events, it is to answer the question, “How can we prepare better next time?” Because history shows, there will be a next time. It is my goal as a future osteopathic physician to help prevent the depletion of protective equipment, the rapid spread of illness, and the inevitable deaths, especially in the most vulnerable populations. I can still hear the applause from the director of nursing because they are forever imprinted on my heart.

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