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A Hard-Earned Degree—and Hope for the Future

June 6, 2012

A lot has happened in Michael Allen’s life since he was just 13 years old, watching the Twin Towers crumble to the ground from across the state line in Woodbridge, N.J.

“I just kept feeling this horrible, helpless feeling as all of those people were dying,” said Allen, who has wanted to work in medicine since he was a kid. “I needed to do something. I needed to help.”

He became an EMT at 16, and at 17-and-a-half, he forged his parents’ signatures to join the New Jersey National Guard. In September 2008, he was deployed to Iraq, where he served as a medic in the United States Army until May 2009.

“I was naturally good as a medic—I loved it—so it was only a matter of what kind of medicine I would [practice],” Allen said. “As anti-war as I am, I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it. I thought, at least I can go and be there, help and possibly save a life. Regardless of who you are, everyone’s a human being when they’re injured. A hurt person is a hurt person, and they deserve treatment.”

Upon his return, he managed to earn a bachelor’s degree from Ramapo College of New Jersey. And next week, he’s scheduled to graduate with a master’s degree from Drexel’s School of Public Health.

“I knew I wanted to get back to school as soon as I got back,” Allen said. 

Allen was drawn to study at Drexel by his desire to continue to help people, but as he was choosing a discipline, he said he was still struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Iraq.

“When I first got home, my brain was stuck in Iraq for months and months,” Allen said. “I knew I wanted to do something with medicine, but I was still struggling too much with all the things I had experienced overseas, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to handle dealing directly with medicine.”

“At first, I would see children [here in the U.S.] as the children I treated in Iraq,” Allen added. “I was reliving [scenarios], and it wasn’t healthy.”

Allen was determined to manage his PTSD, so he immersed himself in aggressive therapy. Today, he said he has improved dramatically over the past three years.

“PTSD doesn’t go away,” Allen added. “It just gets better.”

Meanwhile, an adviser suggested he study public health—a fit that Allen said has given him a unique perspective that will serve him well going forward.

“My concentration for my MPH was in community health and prevention,” Allen said. “I learned how to interact with various cultures and how to approach those subjects. … I’m not looking at patients as stereotypes—I’m looking at them as individuals. And what I learned through the public health program will make me a better physician.”

This fall, Allen—who said he finally feels healthy and comfortable enough to pursue medicine, just as he always dreamed—will begin studying at Temple University’s School of Podiatric Medicine.

“I live to help people,” Allen said. “It’s what makes me happy. My purpose on this planet will always be to help other people. As much as I thought I wouldn’t be able to [after returning from Iraq]—and it killed me to think that—I knew I would struggle and fight to help people in medicine.”