Ryan Nguyen never dreamed that by age 15, he’d be a John A. Burns School of Medicine student.
“I wasn’t the best student in middle school, but I had an excitement for science and research at that time,” Nguyen said.
Growing up in East Honolulu, Ryan’s childhood was similar to his peers.
“I read a ton of books, played a lot of video games,” he said. My childhood was not too abnormal, but I did a lot of reading. I read Red Wall, Artemis Fowl. A lot of young adult fiction, like Harry Potter.”
While many of his interests aligned with his friends at Niu Valley Middle School, Ryan’s passion for biology and science sparked from a school science fair. The inspiration he found that day eventually accelerated his educational path.
“I was given the opportunity, especially in biology, to learn at an early age. For me, that was my chance to express myself and really do something that I cared about and felt was tangible,” he said. “In middle school, everything felt a little more abstract. I didn’t feel like I was making progress, and I didn’t feel any motivation or drive to excel, even if I could. I feel like that’s something a lot of younger students struggle with nowadays, so I’m glad I had the chance to work at something I actually like.”
At 11 years old, Ryan started classes at Kapiʻolani Community College. Surrounded by students in their late teens and early 20s, it was initially daunting.
“When I was starting undergrad at KCC, there was a bit of curiosity in my classmates,” Nguyen recalled. “I was worried they’d see me as a weird thing not to be interacted with, but honestly, everyone was super nice and kind. I really warmed up to people within my second and third semesters.”
Ryan took undergraduate classes at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and KCC with the initial plan of doing research.
“I feel like I was a biology major who wanted to do the stereotypical biology path like do research, that type of thing. I enjoyed that part, but I also feel like I really liked the application, and whenever pathophysiology showed up in classes, I really had a good time,” he said.
By the time he was wrapping up his Bachelor of Science at UH Mānoa, Ryan was 15. He tested out of Kaiser High School by doing an equivalency test similar to a GED. By then, Ryan decided he wanted to pursue a medical career and applied to the University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine. At 16, he started classes as a first-year medical student.
“There was definitely a bit of acclimation. It’s a sort of different environment,” Nguyen said. “Professional in some ways, informal in other ways, especially when considering the medical school environment in general, but all my peers, they’re all super awesome.”
At the same time Ryan started his medical journey, Disney decided to remake the hit show Doogie Howser, M.D. The show, which ran on ABC from 1989-1993, chronicled the fictional Doogie, a teenage physician played by Neil Patrick Harris. The premise of the Disney reboot would be the same, except this time, the show is set in Hawaii, “Howser” is replaced by “Kameāloha,” and the main character of “Doogie” is a teenage girl, played by Peyton Elizabeth Lee. Its second season premieres on March 31st.
The timing amused many at JABSOM, Ryan included.
“Honestly, I feel like it always cracks me up. There’s never been a time where I haven’t laughed at it,” he says.
Adding to the coincidental timing, fiction and reality are often feet away as JABSOM and the neighboring UH Cancer Center act as essential filming locations. Ryan often fields questions about the similarities.
“They ask, have you seen that show, Doogie Howser? It kinda goes from there,” he said, smiling. “I have not watched the show, but I’ve read a little about it on Wikipedia.”
In the show, Doogie often leans on her non-medical school friends to balance the stress of the high-pressure medical environment. Ryan does the same.
“It helps definitely to have someone who’s an outsider looking in and from a support aspect, and having someone to rant to or lean on has been really nice,” he said.
Ryan also knows others played a role in this remarkable achievement.
“There have been a ridiculous amount of people who have helped me out. Medicine and medical school are often perceived as difficult to achieve or get into, so having someone who really understands the process is key,” he said. “Someone who has gone through it before makes things that seem almost impossible very achievable. I have upperclassmen, my brother, who’s also a medical student, I have mentors at UH who have done a ton to help me out, I have family members, cousins who were in med school and recently graduated, who I’ve spent so much time on the phone with. Because of that, I feel like I’ve been mentally prepared, and I feel like I have a bit of a road map.”
Ryan, who wants to pursue orthopedics, is not the first teen to enter medical school. In fact, he’s not the first to enter JABSOM. Dr. Bryan Wahl (JABSOM ’99) attended JABSOM when he was 17 and graduated when he was 21. Ryan understands the many benefits of being one of the youngest to train.
“I feel like I can relate more to younger patients. I know we’ve all been through it at some point in our lives. We’ve all been young before, but I’m glad that I get to work with people around my age, whose struggles I’m able to understand and relate with,” he said. “Perhaps if they see a younger face, they might be able to open up a little more.”
While Nguyen admits there are parts of the teenage experience he missed, he wouldn’t trade his route for anything and one day would like to pay it forward as a physician by teaching aspiring students.
“I have zero regrets. This has been awesome for me, pretty much what I always wanted and exactly what I thought it would be in many ways,” he said. “I would say that you take a little less time to be a young person, when you’re starting a little bit earlier. Again, it’s been a lot of fun, but there are things that you only can do in high school. There are things you can only do when you’re not in higher education. I know I haven’t been afforded that, but I think the trade-offs and things I’ve chosen in that regard have been more than worth it.”
Watch our video featuring Ryan Nguyen here: