If there is a message M4 George Ibrahim wants to convey about the Class of 2022, it’s that they have been there for each other since day one.

“We are a class that’s really had each other’s backs,” said Ibrahim, who took on the role of class president during his second year at VCU School of Medicine. “We’ve been each other’s support systems through COVID, through administrative changes, through personal struggles, and we’ve been successful.”

Now rounding the final corner on their time as medical students, Ibrahim and his classmates have continued the School of Medicine’s long tradition of matching into residencies at a rate higher than the national average. After the Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program, 99.5% of graduating students matched into a PGY-1 position this year.

On the morning of the much-anticipated Match Day ceremony — the first since 2019 to be held in person due to COVID-19 restrictions — students and their families milled around the Hippodrome Theater in downtown Richmond, sipping mimosas and glancing anxiously at the digital clock projected onto the screen behind the stage.

Before the traditional dispersal of envelopes, each containing students’ residency destinations, David Chelmow, M.D., interim dean of the School of Medicine, addressed the buzzing crowd. In addition to congratulations, he offered sincere thanks to the students.

“Their medical school career has been punctuated by COVID, and that has just changed the experience. They’ve helped us learn how to teach under those circumstances,” Chelmow said. “I thank them for their adaptability and their resilience, which is really going to serve them well as residents.”

With 10 seconds remaining, Nicole Deiorio, M.D., associate dean for student affairs, led the crowd in a New Year’s Eve-style countdown. Finally, at noon, the tears and the champagne flowed as students opened their envelopes. Filled with mixed emotions, it was the culmination of four years defined by uncertainty, determination and accomplishment.

Reflection and celebration

“I am beside myself right now, absolutely on cloud nine,” said Chris Pais on Friday afternoon. Pais is the only member of his class to match into a neurosurgery program, and one of 31 students remaining at VCU for residency training. “I opened the envelope, then had to close it and open it up again, just to make sure it was actually happening. I’ll be sticking around Richmond for the next seven years, and I couldn’t be happier.”

Pais said his rotations with the VCU Department of Neurosurgery solidified his decision to rank the program first on his list. As a veteran who served overseas in the Army National Guard, Pais was especially inspired by the department’s connection with the VA Medical Center, where he rotated for several weeks with a patient population that he said he cares about deeply.

After leaving the military, Pais said he missed the complex, acute situations that required teamwork to accomplish the objective. He went into each clinical rotation with an open mind and found that neurosurgery most closely resembled the elements of his service that he thrived on.

“There was a clarity and purpose in the day-to-day work that has been hard to replicate outside of the military,” Pais said. But during his clerkship rotation in neurosurgery, he began identifying parallels. “Both professions demand accountability, precision, ingenuity and an ability to empathize with others in stressful circumstances.”

Saba Ali spent the last four years on the opposite coast from her closest friends and family, and she is thrilled that her match will send her back home. This summer, she’ll move to the Bay Area for a pediatrics residency at University of California San Francisco.

“It’s actually like a dream,” she said of returning to California, where she grew up and attended college. “I had my family on FaceTime while I was opening the envelope and we’re all just so relieved and so excited to be back together, back in the same time zone again.”

Ali has also been invited to join the Pediatric Leadership for the Underserved program, which provides leadership training, experiential opportunities and mentorship in advancing health equity for children. She was initially drawn to VCU School of Medicine for its International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship, or I2CRP, a longitudinal track for students interested in working with underserved populations, and she is eager to build on what she learned in the program.

“That exposure is so important,” she said of her experiences in I2CRP. “You’re working with different resources, different social conditions, and all of that affects what your patient is coming in with and what resources they’re going to have available after this visit.”

For Ibrahim, the final 60 minutes before noon — which he spent staring at the clock — felt like the longest hour of his life. As class president he was behind the scenes for weeks helping to coordinate the event, but on Friday he stood among his classmates, tearing into his envelope the moment the countdown ended.

His destination is Thomas Jefferson University, in Philadelphia, where he’ll begin his general surgery training this summer. It was one of his top choices, partially because of its integration of research — each resident is required to spend one to two years in a laboratory, typically between PGY-3 and PGY-4.

Ibrahim said he always knew he wanted to pursue a hands-on specialty, and the regular interaction with patients is what most resonated with him during surgical rotations. He also developed an interest in cancer treatment after losing his best friend to myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, a blood disorder that can cause leukemia, and plans to pursue surgical oncology after his residency.

“I found that surgeons have very personal relationships with their patients. You're in pain, we’re going to put you to sleep, and when you wake up, you’re going to feel better,” he said. “And in surgical oncology especially, seeing patients have pancreatic cancers removed, and the gratitude those patients had, was just really amazing.”