Match Day Q&A: Maya Altemeier

Date: Friday, March 8, 2024

Hometown: Cedar Rapids, Iowa 

Undergrad: University of Iowa 

Matched: Pediatrics, University of Washington Hospitals 

Portrait of Maya Altemeier

Tell us a bit about your background and experiences growing up.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandma, who was a teacher. My mom, when I was a little older, ended up being a teacher, as well, and my dad is also now a lecturer at the university. So, I have a lot of teaching influence and working with younger generations in my family. I grew to appreciate and feel comfortable around that. Because I looked up to my mom and grandma so much, I think teaching was the first thing that I was interested in. 

My mom was an elementary school teacher, and my sisters and I observed her trying to better understand the circumstances that would lead to a kid doing worse in math class, for example, or the reasons why some families might struggle to put food on the table at night. I saw that empathy modeled from a very young age. My mom paid a lot of attention to the circumstances that caused differences, and she was the kind of person that wanted to do something to directly influence kids’ lives. I think it just became a natural thing for me to ask “why” about these circumstances, too, and then want to do something about it. 

How did you decide to pursue a career in medicine?

I read a book in high school called Mountains Beyond Mountains about how physicians and communities can approach the issues that I had seen my mom talking about in school. I learned what public health was and how, as a society, we can make changes to help improve people's lives. I studied in undergrad at the University of Iowa College of Public Health. That helped me develop a critical lens for understanding, structurally and interpersonally, how health outcomes come about.  

In the middle stages of my public health path, I was looking for a way I could make a difference every day. I felt that as a physician, I could combine everyday interactions with people and my community-oriented understanding of health. 

During my public health undergraduate degree, I was around so many thoughtful, compassionate, and brilliant people who valued community care. But during my volunteering with UI Mobile Clinic, when I would do patient interviews one-on-one, I experienced the vulnerability that patients dip into when they're sharing their concerns or their stories. That captured so much of the compassion and drive I had to create change—and heal, too—in a way that I just didn't feel anywhere else. 

What were some of your most formative extracurricular experiences?

For my entire eight years at Iowa, the UI Mobile Clinic has had such an important role in my drive to become a physician. UI Mobile Clinic is a system of free clinics located in Iowa City and surrounding smaller towns. It's run by physicians, medical students, and undergrads who provide chronic health disease monitoring at monthly clinics in these places. It does not require health insurance, and it's free of cost, so it serves as an entry point to directing people to higher levels of care, if needed, or just providing the regular checkups that so many people don't get, due to a lack of insurance. 

Through those experiences, I saw the physician working in the community, amongst people from all different training levels, and working together to try and find a solution to some big issues. When I first heard about it, it sounded a lot like the things I'd read about in Mountains Beyond Mountains and the reasons that I originally wanted to do public health. 

I started volunteering with them in my first semester of freshman year. Then I moved up and became a clinic coordinator in Columbus Junction, Iowa, and I developed wonderful and memorable connections in that community. Now as the advocacy chair, I get to work on bigger structural changes and improvements. 

What drew you to pediatrics as a specialty?

I didn't go into medical school thinking I would be a pediatrician. During my core year, we had a six-week rotation in pediatrics where we spent time in clinics and then on the wards, as well. I think children and teenagers have a certain honesty and humor that is just disarming. Kids bring out the more lighthearted and silly side of so many health care workers. The joy and life that they carry along with the suffering that they're going through, both of those things just being together in a little human. It’s incredibly humbling. It asks you not to take yourself too seriously, which I think is important in a field that can be so difficult and sad. 

Physicians who work with children can also set the tone of what the physician-patient relationship will be for that patient as they grow. I take that role really seriously.  

What are your hopes and goals for the future?

On one hand, I see myself being a pediatrician that works in a hospital environment. I like that there's a little bit higher acuity in inpatient medicine. I also see myself continuing to be involved on the community level, as well. There are free clinic systems in cities across the U.S., and I feel like I’ll want to get back into that when I'm a practicing physician. It’s important to me to stay rooted in my community and the everyday lives of people, not just the ones that are admitted to the hospital.  

But over the four years of medical school, I have changed so much, and my understanding of the world, myself, and my goals have shifted quite a bit. I'm trying to go into residency with an open mind about what I want to do. I'm ready to take what I am now and allow it to be molded into something new, in this next iteration.