The long, arduous path to becoming a doctor spans four years of medical school followed by at least three years of residency and typically ends with a lot of financial and sleep debt.
It starts with a white coat.
UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health holds its “white coat ceremony” each year, welcoming the incoming class of medical students and presenting them with a hip-length, cotton white coat.
“Even the good old-fashioned doctor’s black bag doesn’t quite hold the same symbolic sway — or quite the same cachet of medical knowledge and authority — as the crisp, clean coat you’re about to receive,” medical school dean Robert Golden told the 182 students representing the incoming class on Aug. 23.
Golden told family and friends filling Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall that day that members of this year’s class, about 71% of whom hail from Wisconsin, displayed a wide range of skills. He ticked off their talents: Fighting fires. Holding patents. Serving in military combat. Even sharpening knives.
“Perhaps a fitting prelude to a future surgeon,” he said of that last skill.
An ‘art form’
Tomas Schlenker quickly recognized as a college freshman in 2009 that he needed a part-time job.
He turned to Craigslist and found a post from The Sharp Brothers, a knife-sharpening company then based out of the basement of the owner’s Whitefish Bay home.
Schlenker ended up staying with the company for a decade. His sharpening followed him throughout his studies in UW-Milwaukee’s public health program and in the years since he graduated while he also worked for a community health center.
Knife sharpening is “an art form,” he said, a balance in maintaining the precise level of pressure and movement while grinding the blade at a specific angle.
“It was touch and go with him for sure,” The Sharp Brothers owner Lee Frederick said of Schlenker’s apprenticeship.
Frederick said that when he began sharpening a chef’s knife it would take him 40 minutes.
Give Schlenker a well-maintained knife — one that hasn’t been run through the dishwasher, soaked in the sink, thrown into a drawer or used on a glass cutting board — and he can get the job done in a minute flat.
“There might not be anyone better,” Frederick said of his protege.
Schlenker, now 28, estimates he has sharpened between 15,000 and 20,000 knives. He’s got cuts all over his hands and fingers to prove it.
In groups of six, incoming students walked onto the auditorium stage where school administrators and student leaders stood behind each of them, a white coat in their hands ready to slide over the future physicians’ shoulders.
Schlenker looked out into the audience where mom, dad and brother sat in their seats. Frederick, too, had driven out from Milwaukee for the ceremony.
Medicine runs in the Spanish-speaking Schlenker blood.
His grandfather was a doctor. Both his parents are, too. His dad, Thomas Schlenker, served a stint as director of Public Health Madison-Dane County from 2006 to 2011.
He remembers playing with his parents’ medical instruments as a child but was unsure if he wanted to follow in their footsteps. With a passion for social justice issues and involvement in several organizations, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, he considered pursuing law, journalism or social work.
“But medicine was a constant draw,” he said. “It was the one that stuck.”
The Sharp Brothers became a second family to Schlenker during his medical school application process. Frederick started Schlenker on what he calls “The Sharp Brothers scholarship,” paying for his employee’s tutoring for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
Schlenker submitted initial applications to 11 medical schools with UW-Madison at the top of his list.
UW-Madison admissions officials picked his and 181 others out of 4,815 applications.
About 30% of the class, including Schlenker, are underrepresented minorities, an increase from about 21% last year, according to Manuel Santiago, the school’s director of multicultural affairs.
Schlenker plans to apply for one of 16 spots in the school’s urban medicine program where he would spend most of his clinical rotations in Milwaukee.
Schlenker waves off what some see as a natural shift from knife sharpener to surgeon, given his propensity for sharp objects. He’s keeping an open mind on what specialty to pursue and notes that he’ll have to take a stab at all of them, including surgery.
More important, he said, is finding a career where he can advocate for “underserved and overpressured” populations.
After he settles into his studies, Schlenker plans to make his sharpening services available to the Madison area.
“It will be a good stress outlet,” he said.
[Editor’s note: This story has been update to correct the status of the student featured in the story, Tomas Schlenker, in the urban medicine program.]