Overcoming Illness

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Sarah Mongiello Bernstein talks about overcoming her illness and tells others that it's okay get to medical school on their own timeline.

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Undergraduate: Cornell University, 2009
Major: Human Development Graduate program: Sloan Program in Health Administration, Cornell University, 2011
Medical school: Emory University School of Medicine, 2015
Specialty: Pediatrics

What led to your interest in medicine?

My mother was born with a unilateral complete cheiloschisis and palatoschisis, more commonly known as a cleft lip and palate. As she matured and developed, she endured multiple surgeries nearly every year for the first 32 years of her life.

I learned of my mother’s birth defect when I was 11 years old. Over the next several years, I would spend countless hours poring over videos from Operation Smile and later, documentaries from the Smile Train. I quickly became enamored with the surgeons in the HBO documentaries, and the precision they used during operations.

Who or what inspired you?

While my mother’s birth defect ignited my initial curiosity for medicine, my own personal experiences exposed me to the complex nature of physiology, pharmakokinetics, and doctor-patient relationships.

The summer before my junior year of high school, I was rushed to the emergency room. For nearly a decade, I struggled with postural orthostatic tachycardiac syndrome, an illness my cardiologists believe was precipitated by the Epstein Barr Virus. This diagnosis took two years, four cardiologists, 12 medications, and dozens of tests. The days I could manage to go to school often included more visits to the school nurse than classes.

During this time, I learned that doctors, like artists, have different styles. Dr. Wendt, my primary cardiologist, was a brilliant physician with the unique ability to communicate complicated physiology effortlessly to an adolescent; he listened and spoke to me with empathy and compassion. When I stepped into his office, instead of fear, I felt comfort. I knew that he would do everything in his power to alleviate my symptoms even if he could not cure them entirely.  He encouraged me to work hard and pursue medicine if that’s what I felt was right.

I often had to get creative with my studying like reading calculus from an ER bed, but I was determined not to let my illness control my life.

Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?

My first year at Cornell, I was really struggling with chemistry. I went to speak to the premed advisor hoping for support and guidance. Instead she said, “Maybe medicine isn't the right career for you.” I left her office feeling pretty devastated. However, I made the decision not to give up.

Four years later, that same counselor asked me to speak to incoming freshman about my acceptance to multiple medical schools. I don't know if she remembered her earlier conversation with me or not, but it was a reminder to never let anyone else decide what I’m capable of accomplishing.

What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?

If you are able to get a teaching assistant position in one of the core courses, do it. Especially if you feel that you’re weak in that area. I worked as a biology TA for three years and it definitely helped me feel more confident and prepared for the exam.

What made your medical school the right fit for you?

Finding the right medical school was kind of like finding the right partner. The intangible qualities that make a place a good fit are difficult to seek out online because there is no way to quantify them. Some places looked really good on paper, but just didn't feel right when I was on campus.

When I interviewed at Emory, I knew it was where I wanted to be. The medical students genuinely seemed happy and supported. They were involved in activities outside of medicine and were active in their community.

I knew I would sacrifice a lot in medical school, but I wanted to be somewhere that valued me as a person and not just a number or test score. During orientation, the dean told us that the single most important quality Emory looks for in their students is passion, and I’ve seen that in many of my classmates, residents, and attendings. Being around people who truly love what they do is contagious and makes every day better.

What was your first year of medical school like?

The first two years of medical school were honestly the best years of my life. A physician once told me that he loved medical school and I thought he had to be lying. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s also very rewarding.

There will always be something else to work toward--residency, fellowship, board certification, career--so I think it’s important to take time to really appreciate how much you've accomplished and the people who have helped get you there. Everything was so new and exciting and I felt privileged to be a part of patients’ lives.

Did you have to change any of your study habits?

Absolutely. I was always a procrastinator in college, but managed to get through four years of undergrad and two years of graduate school at Cornell without much of a problem.

Cramming just really does not work for medicine. Trust me on this. I had to completely change the way I learn and study. It’s a skill I’m continuing to work on!

Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.

During medical school, I’ve spent time volunteering in India and Thailand. I’ve always had an interest in global health, so having hands-on experience was really important to me. Working directly with patients and volunteering in underserved regions always reinforces why I chose to pursue medicine in the first place. 

You can read as much as you want about a disease, but nothing has taught me more about an illness than getting to know someone who struggles with that illness every day. Medical school is a great time to experience different countries, people, and cultures.

What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?

Lately when I get stressed, I try to create something tangible. For me, this usually comes in the form of writing or drawing. I’ve found that I produce some of my best work when I feel completely overwhelmed.

There have definitely been days where I’ve felt really powerless to help a patient or find a solution, so having a visible representation of my efforts, no matter how small, always gives me a sense of accomplishment.

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?

A witty mentor once told our class that “medicine can be a very jealous dominatrix.” You have to protect your time fiercely. I’ve spent a lot of time prioritizing and have found that I’m a better teammate and student when I take time for myself. I also try to indulge in the little things whenever possible--even if it is just taking a moment to sip on my favorite latte, cuddle with my puppy, or call my mom.  

Why did you chose your specialty?

When I see children who suffer from birth defects or disease, I see my mother, and I see myself. In them, I see the potential to become self-assured and independent, confident and full of love, but I also see a need. Many of these children cannot reach their full potential without physicians willing to give their skills and time.

When it comes to health care, I finally understand how beautiful banality can be. If there is one thing I have to give this world, and children like this, it is my time and my passion—my passion for the art of medicine and my desire to change perspectives one patient at a time.

If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?

Don't diminish yourself to a grade or score. You are so much more than that. Committing to medicine is a very personal journey. The right timeline for one person may not be the right timeline for you.

I failed my first chemistry test and withdrew from that class. The second time I took it, I worked harder than I’d ever worked in anything, and still ended up with a C+. I had never done so poorly and honestly considered quitting. I’m sharing my actual grades with you because no one was ever that honest with me. I genuinely thought that getting a C my first year of college meant that I would never be a doctor, but that just wasn't the case. I continued working hard, and got A's in orgo, biochemistry and a lot of my other courses.

I was eventually accepted to several medical schools, including my first choice. If you are passionate and work hard, other people will see that and appreciate the unique set of skills you have to offer.

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