On to the next

Even though becoming a psychiatrist had been Aaron Fox’s goal dating back to his high school years, leaving himself open to the next new opportunities led the fourth-year medical student to find his calling in a different kind of medical work: the emergency room.

Aaron Fox

Aaron Fox is always keeping his eyes on what comes next.

“I think I need to constantly stay moving, stay evolving and just stay improving,” he said. “I’m always waiting for the next big adventure.”

Even though becoming a psychiatrist had been Fox’s goal dating back to his high school years, leaving himself open to the next new opportunity led the fourth-year medical student to find his calling in a different kind of medical work: the emergency room.

“I’ve always had the drive to be the best part of somebody’s worst day,” Fox said. “It’s something that inspired me in emergency medicine. I think there’s the most good to be done in the darkest moments. If you’re in an environment where everything is great, what can you improve on? What can you build on?”

Friday will mark another big “next” for Fox, who will be among the nearly 200 Carolina medical students who will be learning where they will work as resident physicians for the next several years and hone their specialized medical skills.

“I am as ready as I could ever be or expect to be,” Fox said. “Starting residency is one giant leap into the deep end of the pool, but I have gotten a world-class preparation, and I’m excited about moving up to the next level.”

Finding support, a new direction at Carolina

Fox’s interest in a medical career began when he watched his father struggle to navigate the health care system. Seeing the positives and negatives of the current system inspired him to enter the field and find a way to help others — particularly people struggling with addictions.

The Hickory, North Carolina, native ultimately followed his brother to the University of South Carolina and earned a degree in psychology. He planned to start medical school right away, and UNC-Chapel Hill, Fox said, was an obvious choice.

Fox called the start of medical school a “rude awakening” but remained confident it was the right place for him.

“Even though UNC has this reputation of being a very academically rigorous school with high expectations, I did feel it was a very warm environment to be in,” he said. “I felt that people were genuinely invested in my success. It was like, ‘We want to see you succeed. You’re going to have to put the work in, but we’re going to provide everything to help you help yourself succeed.”

The Tar Heel spent his third year on rotations at the UNC School of Medicine’s Asheville campus. He viewed the change of scenery as an opportunity to give back to the community where he grew up.

“It just felt more of a home community for me to give back to,” Fox said. “I was excited to give something back to the community that raised me, formed me into the person I am. I wanted to get a taste of home and to be able to do something productive and give back to the place I grew up.”

The time in Asheville also become a significant turning point in Fox’s career, opening his eyes to pursuing a specialty outside psychiatry. He began getting exposure to emergency medicine and immediately knew it was the right spot for him.

“My first two shifts, I was just glowing,” he recalled. “I think I was trying to talk myself out of it for a while. I walked into my first two shifts and just felt like, ‘This is awesome. This is it. This what I want to do with my life.'”

In emergency medicine, he had found a new path to help patients in a specialty more fitted to his personality.

“It is a field, a pace, a lifestyle that suits me a lot more,” he said. “I’m a very active person. I can’t sit still, so I like that aspect of emergency [medicine]. From a patient’s point of view, whether they’re a medical patient, a surgical patient or a psychiatric patient, their trajectory through the health care system, and ultimately their course, gets pointed in a certain direction from the moment they walk through the door. And that happens in the emergency department.”

Fox hopes to stay within North Carolina to complete his residency in emergency medicine and stay in the field — which he recognizes has high levels of burnout — for as long as he can make a difference. As he prepares for a major milestone in his medical career this week that will set that plan into action, he is eager for that new next.

“It’s a huge achievement and a huge accomplishment,” he said. “But it’s not the end of the line. I’ll celebrate my match for Match Day, but then the next day, it’s going to be like, ‘All right. So now comes residency.’ It’s a point to celebrate, to look back and to reflect, but I can’t rest on my laurels and pretend I’ve made it. I don’t think there is ever a ‘making it.’ It’s just onto the next thing and enjoying every bit of the ride.”

On March 17, Fox matched into emergency medicine at Carolinas Medical Center.