Chris Smith's route to becoming a doctor was unusual: beer delivery driver, line cook, press room helper, data analyst, Ikea worker, and office administrator. He collected unemployment for a while. Then he arrived where he is today: about to graduate from Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, the first in his family to even be a college graduate.
The 36-year-old father of two hopes to "match" on Friday with a hospital residency in emergency medicine. Residencies are post-medical school graduate programs in which the newly minted doctors practice medicine under a supervising physician. They typically last three to four years. Once the residency is finished, an unrestricted license to practice medicine is obtained.
Smith's life struggles, professors say, made him a better student and will make him a better physician.
On Match Day, this year's 57 hopeful CMSRU medical students will rip open envelopes during a ceremony to find out where they have matched to complete their residencies.
Each year, graduating medical school students apply for residencies across the nation through the National Resident Matching Program, which matches students for residencies based on hospitals' availability and criteria around the nation. It is not guaranteed that every graduating medical student will find a match.
Last year, Cooper University Hospital accepted eight CMSRU students to its residency programs. CMSRU spokeswoman Sharon Clark said there was no way of knowing before Match Day how many would match at Cooper this year.
The school came into existence in 2012, and Smith's class is the second to graduate from CMSRU.
Smith grew up in Northeast Philadelphia. His father, Walter, was an Air Force Reserve technician before retiring, and his mother, Helen, a preschool teacher. Neither parent went to college. The family moved to Waldorf, Md., when Smith was 7 and his sister Sarah was born.
Smith returned to Philadelphia for college, graduating in 2003 from Drexel University with a degree in mathematics. In 2005, his daughter, Keira, was born, and in 2008 his son, Caleb.
Before 2008, he worked odd jobs to support his family. When an energy management start-up he was working for folded in 2008, in the depths of the Great Recession, Smith went on unemployment. That changed his life, he said.
"I was running daddy day care, and it was just awesome," Smith said. "But in the midst of it all, I started thinking about what I really wanted to do with my life. I had no 401(k). I knew I was a first-generation college graduate, and that meant something. I wanted to do more."
Finding he had an inclination for medicine, with the support of his family, he enrolled at La Salle University for a post-baccalaureate premedical certificate in 2009, and in 2012 he began applying to medical schools.
In the midst of that activity his relationship with his children's mother ended.
He says Cooper medical school took a chance on him, despite a misdemeanor conviction from his college years. He moved to Camden, living just a block away from the medical school. It's here, he said, that he has truly found his home.
He has grown to love his neighbors in Lanning Square, and he holds dear his volunteer work at the Camden Community Garden. Coupled with his desire to stay near his children, who live with his former partner in Philadelphia, and his love for Camden, Smith is hoping he wins a match at Cooper University Hospital.
"We're very proud of him," Helen Smith said. "It took him a while to get to this point. I was positive he would get to this point."
Steven McClane, an associate professor of surgery at Cooper University Hospital, says the adversity Smith has experienced will make him a better physician. McClane was a mentor to Smith throughout his surgery rotations in his third year of medical school.
"We dealt with patients who might be sad about their diagnosis, and Chris always found a way to lift their spirits, but not unrealistically so. Not a lot of medical school students have the drive to do that," McClane said.
McClane said Smith had attended the funerals of patients he had treated and stayed in touch with their families, which goes beyond his duties as a student doctor.
Smith's volunteer work at the community garden draws praise from the group's president, Sheila Roberts. He helped the garden win a tree-of-the-year award in 2016.