It’s a big world with almost limitless possibilities for a bright young medical student, but Ben Bulger can imagine only one destination.
“When I was a kid, I would think, ‘I want to live in New York City,’ or, ‘I want to live in the mountains,’” he said. “Now, I think about practicing medicine in Springfield and being with my family. There’s nothing else I want.”
Bulger grew up the seventh of 10 children in crowded houses where the kids outnumbered the beds at times. He and his siblings were mostly home-schooled by their mother. The family bond grew so tight that Bulger and his brothers now share a dream of buying homes in the same neighborhood.
The reality that intruded on his dream was the expense of medical school. Bulger, the first member of his family to graduate from college, was accepted to the MU School of Medicine last year, but he worried that student loans would follow him into middle age and hamper his ability to help family members in need and serve his patients. A weight was lifted when he received a full scholarship.
“I am so grateful to get this kind of out-of-nowhere gift from people I haven’t even met,” Bulger said.
The gift came from Michael DePriest, MD ’80, a St. Joseph plastic surgeon, and his wife, Barbara Braznell, a recently retired lawyer who specialized in elder law and estate planning. Both are MU graduates. In 2011, they started an endowment that would fund a scholarship for all four years of medical school for a student in every other incoming class.
“The debt often associated with years of university and medical school can be extremely burdensome to a young doctor starting out,” DePriest said. “It might even affect decisions about practice area or positions. Hopefully, with less debt, the young doctor will have more options to pursue the medical practice he or she is truly interested in and be able to focus more energy to that pursuit.”
The average MU medical student’s debt at graduation is $171,292. That is more than $9,000 below the national average but is still a significant burden. Funding for scholarships to offset that cost falls mostly on private donors such as DePriest and Braznell. Approximately two-thirds of the $1.8 million in MU medical scholarships awarded this year came from private donations.
Bulger said mounting debt is a frequent topic among his classmates. He is spared that distraction, allowing him to focus on his studies and, in rare moments of free time, play chess, read and ride his bicycle.
Bulger didn’t realize his aptitude for science until he got to Missouri State University, where he majored in cell and molecular biology. He is now considering a specialty in emergency medicine and fully expects to return to Springfield, where he can serve his hometown and help support his family.
“At first, I was embarrassed to admit I was interested in medicine, because I didn’t think I could do it. It seemed like a big, daunting thing,” Bulger said. “I started shyly looking into it without telling anybody, but when I would think about it, it just really felt right.
“It felt like the best possible way I could spend my time. Just knowing myself and knowing my strengths, this is the best way I could help people.”
If you would like to help students like Ben Bulger, contact Yvonne Miller in the MU School of Medicine's Office of Advancement at 573-882-6100 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.