The Challenge of Fighting Disease in Medical School
By Carla Jean Whitley
Students have a million different motivations for pursuing a medical degree—a desire to help people, an aptitude for science, or inspiration to follow in the footsteps of a family member or childhood physician, perhaps. But for three current UAB School of Medicine students, the reasons suddenly shifted in midstream when disease became a harsh reality instead of a case study.
Encounters with Empathy
Sarah Gammons began dropping weight, experiencing night sweats, and feeling fatigued during her first year of medical school—and she was certain it wasn’t from stress. “I had a great doctor at the UAB student health clinic who kept looking when every test came back normal,” she says. He sent her to an endocrinologist who diagnosed Gammon with medullary thyroid cancer.
“I started doing research on thyroid nodules in a textbook and a database we use in school,” Gammons recalls. “Medullary thyroid cancer only occurs in 4 percent of people with thyroid cancer; 50 percent of those are genetic, but mine’s sporadic. It was a one in a million chance that I would get this disease at my age.”
She had a radical neck dissection and total thyroidectomy, but “you’re never cured of this type of cancer because there’s no treatment,” she explains. “It’s a chronic disease; every six months, the doctors monitor two hormone levels which are perfect markers for the disease to see if it comes back.”
Despite the surgery and recovery, Gammons was able to stay on track toward her medical degree. The school allowed her to make up work during the summer, and classmates took time away from their break to tutor her. “At the end of the day, I had school to fall back on,” Gammons says. “Throwing myself into my work helped to take my mind off all the bad stuff.”
Gammons says the experience “completely changed” her outlook on being a physician. “I feel like I have more empathy now,” she says. “You don’t really know what that is until you’ve been in a tough situation. When patients are in the hospital and are miserable and in a bad mood, I can understand why.” She adds that she may explore endocrinology or oncology as a career because she now knows a different side of those specialties.
Gammons also wants to devote her time and attention to raise awareness of other young adults with cancer. “There is funding for older people with cancer, and kids get funding,” she says, “but who funds young adults with cancer?” Frustration led her to raise $5,000 for a national nonprofit organization called Stupid Cancer that offers emotional and social support for young adults. “You need that support,” Gammons says. Physicians can treat your disease, she notes, but “they don’t treat your emotions.”
To the End of the World and Back
First-year student Kyle Bess spent most of the fall of 2011 feeling run down, but he attributed it to the late nights he spent studying. Then, last February, he went to the student health center with breathing trouble and was quickly admitted to UAB Highlands, where he was diagnosed with a collapsed lung and lymphoma. He took a break from school for chemotherapy and the bone marrow transplant that followed.
“It’s tough, because you’re used to pushing yourself,” Bess says. “This is what you want to do so badly, and you feel like it’s getting taken away from you. It seems like the end of the world to drop back to the next class. It’s a long road, having to add another year.”
The school was supportive throughout his treatment. Bess explains, “From the get-go, they basically said, ‘You have one year; you have five years. However much time you need to get over this, your spot is held.’” Bess returned to school, cancer free, in October, and the school has allowed him to begin work on his Scholarly Activity, an eight-week research project required for third-year students. “They’re going to let me do it now so I can kind of catch up with my class,” he says. “I’m going to do some extra work in the holidays and summers.”
Bess says his bout with cancer has “changed why I’m enthusiastic about becoming a doctor. It has had a huge effect on whom I want to be and how I want to be.” In the hospital, he observed how physicians’ personalities can affect patients. “The upbeat and positive and lighthearted ones make all the difference in the world,” Bess says. “The ones who focused on my treatment but also know how to take my mind off it really put me at ease.” He adds that “we interview people as first-year medical students, and it’s hard to know how much you can open up to a stranger. What’s appropriate? What would make the patient uncomfortable? I learned that they’re already uncomfortable. They want to hear from you.”
Has the experience encouraged Bess to pursue oncology as a specialty? “Absolutely not! I want to be done with this and put it behind me,” he says. But he is interested in fields that involve long periods of patient interaction. “That could be very satisfying,” he says.
Tough Experiences, Tough Lessons
A career in medicine drew Finn Perkins’s interest from a young age, when he saw many doctors. “I always wanted to help people,” he says.
He has been diagnosed with dysautonomia, a wide spectrum of disorders of the autonomic nervous system. “There are many diseases that are included within,” he explains. “I have been specifically diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, but it does not explain all of my symptoms.”
The second-year medical student took a year off from school and has been hospitalized several times, which Perkins sees as a blessing because of insight into the patient experience. “I’ve been in a unique position to receive tests and therapies that I’ve been learning the science behind,” he says. “It has given me the opportunity to see both patient and provider perspectives.”
Medications “have gotten me to the point where I can go to school,” he says. In the future, he would like to specialize in internal medicine, and he may pair it with psychiatry. For both patients and physicians, mental health means accepting that emotional problems affect health, he says. And after learning about disease the hard way, he feels that he is in a unique position to help change lives for the better.
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of UAB Medicine, the alumni magazine of the UAB School of Medicine.