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Not a typical resident: Ex-football player stands out in family medicine program

Sometimes when Milt McColl, MD, is on rounds with other physicians in his medical residency, patients turn to him, thinking he’s the doctor in charge who can answer all their questions about their health. But he quickly corrects their mistake.

“No, no, I’m still learning," he tells the patients, deferring to the senior residents or attending physicians he’s accompanying on the rounds.

The patients’ confusion isn’t surprising. McColl isn’t exactly your typical resident ­— many of his peers in the residency program are close to the ages of his grown children. I profiled him in a recent Stanford Medicine news article.

But the endearing thing about McColl, say people who know him from the program, is that he’s a friendly and humble guy who doesn’t like to draw attention to himself.

Grace Yu, MD, director of the Stanford Health Care-O’Connor Hospital Family Medicine Residency program, and Jeff Peng, MD, and a chief resident this year, both said it’s more McColl’s style to enthusiastically dive into his work and learn everything he can to build his medical knowledge and skill.

“He doesn’t really talk about all of his accomplishments,” Peng said of McColl, who is a second-year resident. “He focuses on learning and medicine, and he’s just a great guy to have around.”

Still, McColl’s penchant for staying in the background isn’t easy to pull off. He stands 6 feet, 6 inches tall and carries himself with the confidence of the linebacker he was for the 49ers beginning in the 1981 season when they won their first Super Bowl.

But he doesn’t talk about that much, instead explaining how, like his father before him, he managed to juggle playing football during his undergraduate work at Stanford, then with the NFL while also attending medical school. William “Bill” McColl, MD, became an orthopedic surgeon after attending medical school at the University of Chicago while playing for the Chicago Bears in the 1950s. Milt McColl earned his medical degree at Stanford in 1988 and got his medical license after an internship that ended in 1989, just months after he played his last professional football game.

Nor does he talk about his success in the medical device industry that held his attention 28 years, most recently as CEO of Gauss Surgical Inc., which developed a mobile platform for real-time monitoring of surgical blood loss. He left business behind when he decided a couple years ago to finish his residency, with the eventual goal of practicing family medicine, something he said he wants “to do for the rest of my life.”

He said he appreciates the contribution the medical device field makes for patients, and he liked being involved in development, but time he spent volunteering at a primary care clinic in San Francisco made him realize how much he loved working directly with patients.

“When I go home at the end of the day, I feel like I’ve done something I really enjoy doing,” he told me.

Previously: Charlotte Jacobs on finding "snippets during every day" to balance careers in medicine and literature, "I wasn't afraid to fail at my dream": A physician-chef discusses her unusual career and From the newsstands to exam rooms: My chat with Stanford dermatologist Laurel Geraghty
Photo by Paul Sakuma

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