Jeff Talarek‘s path to medicine took a few curves and twists along the way.
The 37-year-old Waterford, Michigan, native initially trained as a mechanical engineer while completing undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan in Mechanical Engineering. Following graduation he chose international missionary work before joining a tax firm and then embarking on a memorable career as a fire fighter and paramedic.
Recently, he completed his first semester as a medical student at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and continues to settle into the Queen City. Talarek says at each stage, he learned something about himself and the impact he hopes to have on lives as a physician.
As a missionary with The Jesus Film Project, Talarek visited 13 countries in Central and East Asia, Africa and Europe.
"There is a level of poverty on the streets that we don’t know in the United States,” says Talarek. "It is generally beyond the condition of even the poorest in the United States,” says Talarek. "Most of us cannot imagine a physically emaciated person sitting cross-legged on the street with cup, hand out, dressed in rags and unable to walk. I saw several instances of this in one large city I visited.”
But overall Talarek’s time spent as a missionary offered him great perspective.
"I met people that have far less than we do, but are happier than we are in the United States,” says Talarek. "You can chose to be happy anywhere.”
Mechanical engineers thrive designing, analyzing, manufacturing and maintaining systems and Talarek once thought it might be a lifelong career. "I have always been a mechanical person and I like to take things a part and see how they work,” he says. "I work with my hands, try to make things better and fix them.”
Talarek spent three years in missionary work, then another three with a tax firm.
"I was doing work that helped companies financially, but that personal element was missing and I didn’t feel like I was benefiting people in a manner I felt rewarding,” says Talarek.
Around that time, Talarek had two experiences that nudged him closer to medicine: an eventful Sunfish sailboat experience, and a visit to a life coach. While in a Sunfish sailboat competition on Lake Huron in Michigan a 55-year-old participant fell off his boat and into the lake. It was a windy day and man struggled to get back to his boat.
Talarek and his younger brother worked quickly to help a stranger out the lake.
"He was getting too tired to climb into the chase boat himself; I left my boat with my brother and swam to help. As Kyle lifted him from inside the chase boat I helped from the water and after a few tries, he collapsed from exertion, but was finally safe. "It was a moment that I reflected on later – ‘how could I rescue people as a career?’ It felt good,” says Talarek.
A visit to a life coach shortly after the incident offered some additional clarity.
Talarek was asked to make a list of jobs he liked. Several were law enforcement and public service positions, but he also listed becoming a physician. The life coach suggested he meet with a couple of physicians to get their perspective.
Talarek spoke to one physician who had been a non-traditional medical student—older and married with children while completing his studies. Their conversation offered a path forward.
"He told me that I should look at everything else I that I find interesting. If I decide that I won’t be satisfied doing anything else, then I should pursue medicine,” says Talarek. "I took this to heart and I decided to pursue becoming a paramedic, and then a flight medic, to operate what I thought to be the highest level as a paramedic.”
Talarek joined the Farmington Hills Fire Department as an Emergency Medical Technician in 2011, serving as a part-time fire fighter and soon after earned a paramedic license. The work was rewarding, but Talarek still remained fascinated by the work of physicians. During his paramedic training an anesthesiologist explained some of the physiology behind oxygenation and anesthesia.
Talarek eventually returned to the University of Michigan, enrolling part-time to complete pre-requisite work, and then full-time to earn a master’s degree in physiology. He considered UC after meeting College of Medicine admissions staff at a medical student recruitment fair before the 2017 application cycle.
"I love it here; it is fantastic,” says Talarek. "I get the impression that everyone here wants you to succeed. I think UC has a highly evolved program that is focused on high-yield material and teaching. I am extremely happy to be here.”
Abbigail Tissot, PhD, assistant dean for admissions in the College of Medicine, says UC tries to ensure that individuals with diverse experiences and background are part of the annual incoming class of medical students.
"In Jeff’s case, when he joined us, his class gained the perspective of engineer who didn’t follow the ‘typical’ path,” says Tissot. "During his life before medical school, Jeff had been a missionary, tax firm consultant, and then a paramedic and fire fighter. For students in his class that did not have those experiences, Jeff is able to share with them his point of view.”
"In that way, all of our students regardless of their path to medical school get to build a broader, more informed point of view,” says Tissot. "I absolutely love that. It’s one of the aspects of our medical school that is truly special compared to our regional competitors. Our medical students share their varied and unique experiences with one another and build a more comprehensive worldview. Ultimately, this is a benefit not only to each of them individually, but also to their patients as they become clinicians.”