Alumni Spotlight | Jennifer Macdonald, M.D.

By Joel Hoekstra

Serving others: A capital experience

My everyday mantra: serve, contribute something to the world, and make sure my loved ones know how much they mean to me.  

–Jennifer Macdonald, M.D.

Jennifer Macdonald, ’12 M.D., has always felt drawn to service. As an undergraduate, the St. Cloud, Minn., native helped to establish a humanitarian organization to fight poverty in rural Uganda. As a medical student at the University of Minnesota, she was a class representative and worked as a free-clinic volunteer. She spent 11 years in the Minnesota Army National Guard and was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom before she returned to the States. 

Macdonald worked as a family medicine resident physician at the University of California, Los Angeles, until last spring, when she was named a White House Fellow, assigned to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. As part of the yearlong paid experience, she works with the agency’s leadership team, gaining valuable insight into how the federal government works and how national policy shapes American society.  

The Medical Bulletin asked Macdonald via a written interview, as required by her position, about this opportunity of a lifetime.

Why did you want to be a White House Fellow?

My motivation came from the stories of the patients I have served in medicine, especially those belonging to socioeconomically marginalized communities, and from the struggles faced by many in the military veteran community. Ultimately, I want to make policy advances on behalf of both groups, and this opportunity allows me to observe the decision-making processes at the highest levels of government.

How do you envision applying your experience as a Fellow to your career?

The personal and professional growth that this fellowship has afforded me will be invaluable in any future endeavor — as will the connections I’ve made. I am not yet certain which direction my path will lead after the fellowship concludes, but I plan always to stay connected to medicine and the veteran community.

You served in the National Guard and completed a tour abroad. Why was this service important to you?

I learned the meaning of honor, professionalism, and valor from my peers in the Minnesota Army National Guard. My fellow soldiers lived each day with authenticity, commitment, and a deep sense of contribution. Through their willingness to share their life experiences, they imparted the wisdom that has allowed me to pursue increasingly lofty goals.

Your primary duties were as a musician. What kind of music did you perform?

The 34th Infantry Division “Red Devils” Rock Combo, for which I was a vocalist and keyboardist, performed a wide variety of music, from Michael Jackson to Norah Jones. We were one of six musical-support teams on deployment to Basra, Iraq, in 2009, and our overall mission was to boost morale. The rigors and danger of travel on deployment were all made worthwhile by the opportunity to give our fellow soldiers a few moments of unabated joy and remembrance of home.

Why did you ultimately choose to pursue an M.D.?

Medicine has been my chosen vocation since I can remember. I was playing with a plastic stethoscope before I was school-aged. The University of Minnesota was an excellent fit for medical school, including in ways I did not anticipate at the outset. When I arrived, the school had recently instituted the Flexible M.D. program. My plans to travel abroad and pursue a public health degree with that flexibility of time were altered by deployment, but the Flexible M.D. program still made it possible for me to transition abroad and return to school with surprising ease. Everyone, from my classmates to my mentors to Sheryl Houston in the Financial Aid Office, was exceptionally supportive and warm.

When did you settle on family medicine, and what about it was compelling?

Prior to deployment, general surgery and family medicine topped my list of potential specialties. Both offered the opportunity to fulfill my traditional concept of a physician as a person able to care for anyone who walks in the door. 

While volunteering in the Troop Medical Clinic in Basra, I encountered a soldier who had completed multiple deployments. She came to the clinic for a simple medical issue, but what she really needed was someone to listen. She was estranged from family and her prior work and was losing sight of a meaningful existence beyond deployment. Family medicine is about seeing the whole person, about discovering health instead of labeling disease, and about demonstrating your faith in your patients’ ability to meet their challenges. For this soldier, the simple reframing of her experiences — with emphasis on her strength and on her ability to connect to the community around her — was powerful. By the time I returned home, there was no doubt in my mind that family medicine was my vocation.

Where do you see your career going after you complete your Fellow experience?

My only plan is to follow my everyday mantra: serve, contribute something to the world, and make sure my loved ones know how much they mean to me. I have two little children and an incredible husband who leads adventure tours around the globe, helping participants discover their own strength and health along the way. We plan to spend our lives building a brighter future, not just for our family, but for all those we stand beside.

Published on April 5, 2016

(Illustration: Melinda Josie)