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It was the first day of classes at the UW School of Medicine, but instead of attending anatomy class, one first-year medical student was hiding in the student union. Anxious and overwhelmed, he flipped through a newspaper, drinking cup after cup of coffee and wondering what on earth he’d gotten himself into. For Gilbert Smith, M.D. ’64, it was almost the end of his medical career — before it even began.
Smith had grown up in the tiny town of Ravalli, Montana, “a town you could walk through in five minutes,” he recalls. Having always felt drawn to science, Smith earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana and then applied to the UW School of Medicine. But when he arrived in Seattle and made his way to campus, Smith experienced some serious culture shock.
“I was really intimidated by the size of Seattle,” Smith says, “and I was having second thoughts about whether I’d be able to make it through medical school.” Nervous and feeling out of place, he skipped the first two days of class. On the third day, he gathered his courage and went to see Richard Blandau, the dean of admissions.
“I told him I was completely overwhelmed, and he understood,” Smith says. Still, Blandau told him, seeing as he’d already paid for tuition and books, Smith should at least stick around for the quarter. Then, to make sure Smith didn’t miss a third day, Blandau walked him to class and introduced him to his new classmates. Soon enough, Smith had settled in at school and never looked back.
Four years later, on graduation day, Smith saw the kindly dean again. “He came up and congratulated me personally,” says Smith. “He remembered me all that time.”
Meanwhile, Smith had found the specialty to which he would devote his career: OB/GYN. While an intern at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane, he met his wife, Christi, an OB nurse. Drafted during the Korean War, Smith later became a resident at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. After being discharged from the U.S. Army, Smith returned to Spokane and practiced for 26 years. Now retired, he teaches reproductive health classes at the Women’s Hearth shelter in Spokane.
It all might never have happened without a bit of help at a pivotal moment, and Smith knew he wanted to pay it forward.
His own tuition had been covered by a program in Montana, and Smith counted himself fortunate that he was able to graduate debt-free — but he realized that many of today’s students face significant debt in medical school. That’s why he and his family created the Gilbert A. Smith, M.D., Family Scholarship for medical students.
“Even undergraduate school can be prohibitively expensive,” says Smith. “It’s my hope to help get students through a month or two of just surviving at school.”
Today, Smith still remembers Blandau fondly as the mentor who started him on his path. “If I hadn’t talked to him that day, I probably would have quit,” he says. “But he saw something in me. He was a wonderful person.”