Updated 12/20/2022 to add a video link to the episode.
Fire truck. Those are among the favorite words of Jay Mehta, MD, a pediatric rheumatologist and rheumatology fellowship director at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
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When he was in high school, Jay appeared on the TV game show, Wheel of Fortune, during My Favorite Teacher week. As a contestant, he competed against other teams comprising high school students and their favorite teachers. (Watch the episode.)
Sixteen-year-old Jay and his high school English teacher—John Harrington—won the grand prize. They each received approximately $40,000 in cash and prizes—including a new car each. The word puzzle they solved to clinch their fortune? FIRE TRUCK.
“It was very cool,” Dr. Mehta recalls. “There was a picture of me and my teacher in the newspaper back when being in the newspaper was a big deal” (see the middle photo).
In 1992, the production staff at Wheel of Fortune contacted high schools in specific cities to select students to try out as show contestants. Jay and his four teammates serving on his school’s Quiz Bowl team were chosen.
“During the audition, we had to solve 20 or 30 word puzzles on paper,” he says. “Each puzzle was a word or phrase with some of the letters missing.”
Based on his high score, Jay made the cut and moved on to the next level—a game show simulation. Every student was carefully being observed by the show’s staff, who then selected him and one of his Quiz Bowl teammates as contestants.
“I was very surprised that I was chosen,” Dr. Mehta says. “I was a fairly serious student and wasn’t necessarily the most animated contestant.”
He then had to choose his favorite high school teacher to join him on the show. That decision was easy, Dr. Mehta says. He asked his English teacher John Harrington.
“[Mr. Harrington] was someone who helped you realize the meaning behind novels and stories,” Dr. Mehta says. “He made literature come alive and helped me become a strong writer. In academic medicine, we do a lot of writing. I enjoy writing, in large part because of how much I learned from him.”
When asked, Mr. Harrington not only agreed to be Jay’s teammate, but felt “honored,” says Dr. Mehta.
Dr. Mehta soon learned that five episodes of the show would be taped on one day in October at a TV studio in Philadelphia. Although everyone had to pay their own way, Jay, his father and Mr. Harrington eagerly hopped on a plane and spent the five-hour plane ride strategizing.
During the show’s taping, Jay was quite surprised at the size of the studio audience. Instead of several hundred people, he says there were several thousand, cheering for their favorite contestant.
Early in the game, Jay and Mr. Harrington were losing due to several bad spins. The wheel stopped on bankrupt and lose a turn. But then their luck changed. They won the next several puzzles, and one spin rewarded them with a projector TV.
“When we got the third puzzle right, Pat Sajak walked over to tell us that we won the round,” Dr. Mehta says. “He actually had to nudge me to smile, because I was so serious.”
While on stage for the final round, the puzzle board was filled in with five consonants and a vowel: R, S, T, L, N and E. Then contestants choose four more letters. Jay and Mr. Harrington chose C, H, A and D.
Within seconds, both Jay and Mr. Harrington solved the puzzle: fire truck.
“My dad came running out on stage, hugging us,” he says. “In total, we each won $40,000 in cash and prizes, which included our choice of a Pontiac Sunbird convertible or sedan. My teacher and I each sat in our own car on stage while Vanna White congratulated us. It was pretty fantastic.”
Dr. Mehta say his parents wouldn’t allow him to pick the Sunbird convertible since Consumer Reports had rated it the worst U.S. car that year. Instead, his parents convinced him to choose a gigantic family car, a 1992 green Pontiac Bonneville, and use roughly $10,000 of his prize money to pay the taxes on the car and TV.
Jay and his teacher were featured in the local newspaper, and when the shows aired two months later, they became local celebrities.
Will Anyone Believe Me?
Dr. Mehta says he uses this experience as an icebreaker, whether he’s attending a party or medical conference and even mentioned it on his résumé and residency application.
Sadly, he no longer has the VHS tape of the show proving his TV debut. During college, he accidentally left his one and only tape on top of the toaster oven in his apartment. When his roommate baked a frozen entrée, the tape melted.