On a United States map displayed on stage at Thalia Mara Hall, Jamelle Johnson of Aberdeen sticks a pin in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she matched for her residency in neurology.

For Jamelle Johnson, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, a long stretch of troubled sleep ended recently with an email from Ohio.

The cure for her bouts of insomnia – interrupted only by “nightmares” – was a message from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center welcoming the fourth-year medical student as an imminent trainee in neurology.

“I was ecstatic when I read it; there were tears of joy,” said Johnson of Aberdeen, one of around 135 School of Medicine students at the University of Mississippi Medical Center who learned at about the same time and in the same manner where they had “matched” for their residency training.

For Mariam Ebeid, a future medicine-pediatrics trainee, it was also a moment of “overwhelming emotions” when she opened the email from her “No. 1 choice”: UMMC.

The occasion was, officially, the Match Day for the 2021 National Resident Matching Program Main Residency Match, where soon-to-be medical school graduates from the U.S. and other countries discovered where they would be living and working for the next three to seven years, honing skills in pediatrics, neurology, emergency medicine, family medicine, obstetrics or one of many more specialties.

Among them were the graduating students at the Medical Center, with 115 of those attending March 19’s ceremony at Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson.

“It was great seeing who was staying in the state and at UMMC,” said Ebeid, whose commitment to Mississippi includes the work she began as a second-year student recruiting volunteers to the Food Recovery Network, a student movement fighting waste and hunger in America.

“I really liked being here for med school; I don’t think you can get any better people than those here at UMMC; they are so important to me,” Ebeid said. “And I know I will be as prepared as I can be when I’m done.”

Ebeid was one of the students who hopped on stage and announced their individual matches, but not before dropping five bucks into a doctor’s bag – the prize, along with the accumulated cash, for the last person called up.

The event was the culmination of Match Week, which began March 15, when students learned where they matched, although the process actually began last fall when they began applying, virtually this round due to pandemic restrictions, to residency programs from Massachusetts to Florida, and from North Carolina to Oregon.

Applicants and program directors then ranked each other by preference and turned in their ranked lists to NRMP for processing using a computerized mathematical algorithm. Through that formula, the applicants were matched with the programs.

Before the ceremony, the NRMP released the results of the match, the largest in its history, with a total of 38,106 positions offered, including those for Johnson and Shanesse Spratt. The two friends cheered on each other, and everyone else, as they matched in 21 different specialties. It was a catharsis that followed weeks, maybe months, of suspense.

“It was so nerve-racking, but so worth the wait to be matched in the specialty I wanted,” said Spratt of Southaven, who will do her residency in emergency medicine at Magnolia Regional Health Center in Corinth.

“Wherever God took me, I was just happy to go. And I’m happy to keep my talents in Mississippi.”

Dr. LouAnn Woodward should be happy about that, too. As she does each year, the vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine at UMMC urged the graduating students to keep Mississippi in mind once they complete their residency training, no matter how far afield that may be.

“And, spoiler alert, I’m going to say the same thing on graduation day,” Woodward said. “We need you here in Mississippi, taking care of our patients.”

Wherever the future doctors decide to practice, 60, or about 44 percent of the graduates, will do their residencies at UMMC, with several more training elsewhere in the state.

Guest speaker Dr. Maureen Offiah, a dermatologist and 2014 School of Medicine graduate who did her residency at UMMC, reinforced that message to the students by quoting her father: “‘In all that you do, remember the home you came from.’”

In her remarks, Woodward also acknowledged the contributions from the students’ families and non-medical school friends – who were not present at the event in deference to COVID-19. Last year, at the outset of the pandemic, Match Day was strictly a virtual experience for the students.

“I’m so sad you’re not with us,” Woodward said to the students’ loved ones, who were able to view the livestreamed proceedings from their homes and offices. “This year has not been typical in any sense.”

If it had been a typical Match Day, Weston Eldridge of Flora would have seen his grandparents applauding him from the audience. He was able to see them and share his good news before the ceremony, though.

“We gathered on the couch and read the email together, and drank sparkling grape juice,” said Eldridge, who matched in family medicine at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg.

“My grandparents have been vaccinated now,” he said. “So this was the first time I was able to hug my grandmother since about December 2019.”

While the pandemic may have driven the students farther, physically, from their families and others, it also drew them closer to each other.

“You are living in a very significant time in history,” Woodward said to the students. “In the future, your children will learn about this and will be in awe that you were in medical school during this time.

“You’re stronger and you’re better. We’re really proud of you and proud of your class.”

Peyton Thigpen, senior class president, who matched at UMMC in psychiatry/child-adult psychiatry, described how the students had missed out on much, including weddings and birthday parties and the other bonding rituals of life; to make those absences more bearable, they had turned to each other for support.

Johnson saw that, too. “We’ve had to lean on each other more than in the past,” she said. “It feels like family, and that’s what it feels like we’re leaving.”

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