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Alumni Spotlight: Christen Fleming

Written by Tristan Hightower, Progam Assistant for the Chancellor’s Honors Program

People discover their place in the world in different ways. For some, passions are discovered at a young age, while others take more time. For Dr. Christen Fleming, the realization that she was destined to become a physician came to her at the age of eight. She would stay on that path for the foreseeable future. When it came time to decide where she would attend college in pursuit of this goal, the University of Tennessee was her first choice. Although she was raised in Chattanooga, Rocky Top was her true home. Ever since, Fleming has embodied the Volunteer spirit and served as an example to future students.

“If you do not love to learn, medicine is not the right field for you,” Fleming said in response to a question about her educational background. Perhaps a less obvious, but nonetheless important, aspect of her undergraduate career came from Fleming’s membership in the University Honors program (the precursor to the Chancellor’s Honors Program). For her, being part of the honors program stemmed from an intellectual curiosity she attributes in part to her mother – a teacher. In her opinion, being part of a smaller group within the larger context of the University helped challenge her; Fleming was able to take courses that confronted her beliefs and knowledge base. This prepared her for a career as a physician. Fleming’s passion for knowledge did not stop at her membership in an honors program. Many students on the pre-medicine track choose to major in biology, chemistry, or another natural science. She chose a different path, double majoring in Finance and International Business in order to broaden her base of knowledge. Her background in business has been invaluable throughout her years as a physician because her medical practice operates like a small business, even though it is owned by UT Medical Center.

Today, Chancellor’s Honors Program students are required to complete a “ready for the world” project. Most fulfill this requirement by studying abroad and experiencing a new culture. Though it did not exist at the time of her undergraduate studies, Fleming did study abroad. Traveling to Spain and Italy, she encountered new peoples and her perspective on the world changed. In particular, she stressed the importance of learning to be flexible in the face of adversity. This skill became all the more important when she had to decide on a specialization later in her studies. Fleming always wanted to be a physician, but her idea of which specialization fluctuated quite a bit, ranging from pediatrics to obstetrics. Eventually, she decided on internal medicine. “Something pulled me,” she said with regard to becoming an internist, “this will work for [me] better.” Not fearing change allowed Fleming to embrace her talents.

“I wake up every day and feel like I’m helping people,” Fleming says of her job. Though not explicitly mentioned, the concept of social responsibility is deeply ingrained in multiple aspects of her life. For her, medicine is truly about the community. While you might need to know chemistry and biology, “there are so many aspects of medicine that are not science.” Clinical rotations were illustrative in this instance because they taught Fleming “how to treat people, how to respect people, and how to talk to people.” She is deeply invested in her work, and that investment pays dividends – “just yesterday I had a man come in to see me,” Fleming remarked, “and he said I saved his life. I don’t know of another career where you can hear those words.”

Beyond the clinic, Fleming continues to give back. This semester, she hosted a lunch for current honors students to share about her career path. On making decisions ranging from majors to long-term goals, she encourages students to “be able to define why you have a passion” for whatever it may be. If you are unable to do that, you might need to reevaluate why you are making that decision. There is considerable change occurring in the world of medicine in the United States right now, but that does not stop Fleming from encouraging students to pursue careers as physicians if that is where their passions lie. Speaking about what students should look for in a medical school, she stressed the importance of listening to that “internal voice about where to go.” Fleming says she cannot imagine her career working out any better than it has.

Christin Fleming, MD is an internist with UT Medical Center. She is an alumna of the University of Tennessee and the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center. While completing her residency at UT, she was the recipient of both the Rawson Award and the Clinic star of the year award. Fleming currently resides in Knoxville with her family.