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The youngest member of the University of Manitoba’s newest cohort of medical students is just 19.

The fresh-faced teenager shrugged on his first white coat Wednesday as part of the university’s annual white-coat ceremony, a symbolic start to medical school where some of the province’s big-name health officials applaud their future colleagues.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Henry Li, 19, after the White Coat Ceremony on Wednesday at the University of Manitoba’s Bannatyne Campus. He was one of the 110 students of the Class of 2021 that were formally cloaked in their first white coats as part of Inaugural Exercises at the Max Rady College of Medicine in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Henry Li, 19, after the White Coat Ceremony on Wednesday at the University of Manitoba’s Bannatyne Campus. He was one of the 110 students of the Class of 2021 that were formally cloaked in their first white coats as part of Inaugural Exercises at the Max Rady College of Medicine in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences.

In four years, Henry Li will get to add the letters M.D. to his name. He’ll be 23 and a doctor.

But standing in the foyer of the Max Rady College of Medicine, surrounded by more than 100 of his classmates, Li isn’t ready to jump that far forward yet. He also isn’t ready to pin down what kind of doctor he wants to be.

"There’s a lot of time. I’m keeping an open mind and we’ll see what happens," he said.

Medicine is a Li family affair.

Li’s father, Mingyi Li, was a family physician in China, while his brother, Junli Li, is a fourth-year medical student at the U of M who wants to specialize in radiology.

Despite sharing their passion for medicine, Li said he never felt, "Gosh, I need to be a doctor."

"It was kind of a gradual decision. It’s always been something in the back of my mind and I think as I matured it became more and more something that I wanted to do, something I committed to do," he said.

The appeal is in the multidimensional nature of the work.

"You can carry out research, you can teach and, of course, the clinical aspect," Li said.

"I think this is something unique to the field of medicine and to the role of a physician… You can do all of these things and you aren’t restricted."

Traditionally, medical students are at least 22 or older, having finished an undergraduate degree first.

Li skipped first grade and then doubled up on advanced placement courses in high school that would count for university credit. He graduated from Winnipeg’s Fort Richmond Collegiate in 2015 and finished a U of M science degree focusing on microbiology and biology in just two years.

Now, he is one of 110 students who will make up the university’s class of 2021. His group is the second since the U of M began making a concerted effort to make sure the future physicians it’s training are ethnically and socio-economically diverse.

Li is part of the 95 per cent of the class who are Manitoban. The majority of the group are women, with 26 having some form of rural connection, and nearly a dozen self-declaring Indigenous ancestry.

Watching them all put on their white coats and reciting the physician’s Hippocratic Oath was motivating, Li said. "It’s really awe-inspiring seeing all these people that have committed themselves and dedicated themselves to this long path of learning and serving others."

For at least one of the classmates, the decision to become a doctor has less to do with medicine and more to do with community.

Justin Feilberg wants to work as a family doctor in rural Manitoba, a position in high demand.

"I think the best way to get physicians practising in rural communities is to get students from those rural communities into the medical profession," said the 33-year-old married father of one.

Committing to practising medicine in a rural area when you’re originally from a more urban centre can be "daunting," he said, but not for him. Feilberg, who lives in Steinbach and plans to commute, was raised in East Braintree, which is near the Ontario border.

"Access to medicine can be a very difficult challenge for some people and I feel it would be a great way for me to help give back to the communities that helped shape me and made me who I am," he said.

jane.gerster@freepress.mb.ca