Fisheries alum Trent Wilkes taking AU lessons into the ER
Trent Wilkes, M.D., believes in caring for others. It is, after all, what he does every time he arrives at his job in the emergency department at Springhill Medical Center in Mobile, Alabama.
But he also knows the importance of being cared for—something he learned as an undergraduate student in the College of Agriculture, where caring, supportive mentors helped him navigate his somewhat unconventional path to becoming an emergency medicine physician.
A native of Crossville in Alabama’s DeKalb County, Wilkes grew up in an Auburn family and knew he wanted to come to The Plains for college. But 16 years ago, as he approached graduation day at Crossville High School, he was struggling to figure out just what he wanted to do with his life. Help came through his first cousin, Chris Gary, who was a development officer for the College of Agriculture at the time.
“I’d made pretty good grades in high school, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living,” Wilkes says. “Chris knew all the department heads in the College of Agriculture, so he made me an appointment to come down for a campus visit and meet with some of them.”
During that visit, Wilkes was pleasantly surprised to learn that Auburn had a fisheries program, which immediately piqued his interest.
“I grew up loving to fish, so the fisheries program sounded like a lot of fun,” he says.
He originally had planned to attend Snead State Community College in nearby Boaz after his May 2000 graduation from Crossville High, but that plan changed abruptly when he was awarded a last-minute Auburn scholarship. He headed straight to The Loveliest Village, arriving in time for fall semester as a freshman majoring in fisheries management.
It was then that he began learning, not just about fish, but also about himself, thanks in large part to the help of a number of College of Agriculture mentors, including the college’s associate dean for instruction at the time, Bill Hardy, and then–assistant dean Bill Alverson.
“Bill Hardy was around then and Bill Alverson and many others who had a huge influence on me,” Wilkes says. “Everyone there was trying to get me to do more and realize my potential, and they instilled in me more self-confidence and the belief that I could do whatever I wanted to do.”
Those mentors not only helped Wilkes academically, they also got him involved in extracurricular activities, including the Ag Ambassadors. It was through that experience, along with his involvement in the Auburn Wesley Foundation’s campus ministry, that Wilkes discovered he had a passion for serving others.
“It got me thinking that maybe I should pursue a career where I’m serving people more than fish,” he says, “even though I really love fish!”
Wilkes had already changed his major from fisheries management to the fisheries pre-professional track during his sophomore year, with the idea of possibly applying to veterinary school. But as graduation drew closer, he began to consider a career in human medicine instead.
With no medical professionals in his family, though, he was hesitant to head down that career path, until yet another Auburn mentor, fisheries professor Carol Johnston, gave him the needed nudge.
“I was working for Carol Johnston in her lab, and she was a really big influence on me,” Wilkes says.
“She recognized I could do whatever I wanted academically, and she encouraged me to try things.”
CHANGE OF COURSE
Bolstered by Johnston’s support, Wilkes applied to and was accepted into the medical research doctoral program at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. About two years into that five-year program, however, he realized something else about himself.
“I was cooped up in a lab doing cell biology, and it was not anywhere as much fun as the fisheries lab,” he says. “I realized I was heading down the wrong career path for me.”
He had an inkling about what path he wanted to take, though, thanks to some of his coursework in that Ph.D. program.
“As part of my curriculum, we attended conferences every Friday at the university hospital where the doctors talked to us about interesting cases, and I enjoyed that more than anything I did,” he says. “So I decided to apply for medical school.”
The only problem with that idea was that Wilkes had to apply through Auburn, where he had taken all of his prerequisites, rather than through South Alabama. Again, Auburn mentors were there to help guide him through the application process in record time. He was accepted into the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine in 2008.
As he neared graduation from UAB, Wilkes faced yet another career decision: What kind of doctor did he want to be?
“I enjoyed almost everything I did in medical school, but I knew I wanted to do something a little more exciting,” Wilkes says. So, after completing medical school at UAB, he began a three-year residency in emergency medicine at University of Florida Health hospital in Jacksonville, Florida.
During those three years, Wilkes not only gained expertise in emergency medicine, he also met Lindsey Wilson, a graduate of the University of Florida’s nursing program who was working at the hospital. The two married in 2015 and moved to Mobile, where Wilkes joined the emergency department staff at Springhill Medical Center and began putting his training to work.
Though Wilkes admits that emergency medicine is not always as dramatic as he once imagined, it is always diverse and rewarding.
“We see the whole spectrum, from pediatric emergencies to adults,” he says. “It’s not always exciting, but you have to be ready for anything because you never know when a gunshot wound or a heart attack will walk through the door. It can be stressful, but it’s fun.”
It is also a place where caring knows no boundaries.
“There is no discrimination here,” Wilkes says. “It doesn’t matter where they are from or whether they have insurance, I am going to see everyone who walks through the door.”
That’s important to Wilkes, whose passion for service work that started at Auburn expanded further when he was in medical school and participated in medical service projects, including doing an internship at a small hospital near Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania when he was at UAB.
“It is something I am passionate about,” he says.
He says he hopes to do more medical missionary and volunteer service work in the future, but finding time for that is a bit difficult at the moment. Wilkes has his hands full, working rotating shifts at the hospital, studying for upcoming oral medical board exams and helping Lindsey take care of their daughter, Pearl Marie, who was born in August.
He does, however, still make time to fish, opportunities for which abound in the Mobile area. Fishing allows Wilkes time to unwind and also reconnect with the degree that helped set him on the path to a career he loves.
“It’s funny that when most people find out I have a degree in fisheries, they say ‘What?’” says Wilkes. But he is proud of that background and, while it was an unconventional route, he says the fisheries pre-professional route prepared him well for medical school.
“Through that curriculum you have to learn how to study, and I felt like I was very prepared coming out of the College of Agriculture,” he says. “With the pre-professional degree in the College of Ag, I could do anything.”
While he is sure much of his fisheries knowledge has faded, Wilkes’s appreciation for Auburn has not.
“Everything about the College of Agriculture was really special to me,” Wilkes says.
“I see that more and more now. There are so many people I’m thankful I crossed paths with at Auburn who helped define my career and helped me be successful.”