Each year, soon-to-be graduating medical students count down to the third Friday in March, also known as Match Day, when they find out where they will continue their medical training.
The extraordinary circumstance of the COVID-19 outbreak has meant enormous shifts in normal operations across Penn Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania. Extra precautions are being taken to provide the safest environment possible for students, patients, faculty, and staff during this unique and rapidly evolving challenge — including changes to celebratory events. This year, the Perelman School of Medicine Class of 2020 will be celebrating their match virtually, with the help of social media, student stories here on the Penn Medicine News Blog, and videos.
To kick-off our Match Day blog post series, Sneha Narasimhan, a medical and PhD student at the Perelman School of Medicine and an aspiring neurologist, shares her thoughts as she prepares for the next step in her career. Keep an eye out for more stories from PSOM students over the next week. You can join the Match Day excitement by following #PSOMMatch.
Everyone around the hospital bed looked at me, waiting for my decision — I could feel the palpable tension in the room as I grappled with a true life-or-death situation. I knew my medical school education was supposed to train me for this moment, but never before had I felt so unprepared. My eyes turned to the elderly woman in the bed, watching her grimace, almost as if she were in pain. That was enough to make up my mind, so I said, “It’s time to let her go.” Minutes later, my grandmother passed away peacefully.
In all of my years of medical and graduate school, that was the most difficult decision I had to make. My grandmother had suffered for years with Parkinson’s disease: the disease first took away her ability to use her hands, then her ability to walk, and finally, her ability to think. Watching this neurodegenerative disease completely devastate a once lively and personable woman was painful enough, but even worse was watching how much it tore through the seams of my entire family. By the time we got to her last day, no one felt strong enough to accept that this was the end; as the future doctor, everyone looked to me for that strength. Even though as a medical student I had helped countless patients and families talk through similarly difficult decisions, it was so much worse when it was my own family. It was only then that I realized how vulnerable my patients’ families must have felt in those same moments.
The experience cemented my desire to help people navigate the complexities of living with neurodegenerative diseases. As a future neurologist, I hope to help families find that strength to support their loved ones through these devastating illnesses, while also relieving the burden on caregivers. More importantly, I want to initiate those tough conversations about end-of-life care early, so families can be as prepared as possible when the end inevitably comes. While some say neurology is a challenging specialty because we cannot cure many diseases, my own family’s experience made me realize how even a small gesture can have a huge impacts on patients’ lives.
Yet, as a scientist, I would never be satisfied if I had to watch people suffer the way my grandmother did and never have any curative treatments to offer. When I started the MD/PhD program at Penn, I knew I wanted to blend a career in both medicine and science, with the goal of making discoveries that would directly benefit patients. I quickly realized the best field for that was neurology, with a focus on neurodegeneration: despite decades of research, there were still no treatments that could slow down or halt the progression of these diseases. I felt particularly drawn to Dr. Virginia Lee’s lab not just because she studies neurodegenerative diseases, but also because her lab has one mantra: “We are searching for a cure.”
I spent four years of my PhD developing a new mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease to test new therapies that will hopefully be translated to patients someday. This often meant spending hours sitting at the microscope analyzing brain images with no end in sight. Whenever a failed experiment in the lab would discourage me, I would go back to the neurology clinic. Interacting with patients and families with the illnesses I was researching rejuvenated my spirit. It was in those moments, I knew I chose the right path as a physician scientist, as each side of my dual career would drive the passion for the other.
I plan to continue this career by getting back to research after my residency so that one day I can lead my own lab in the search for a cure. One day when I stand beside a hospital bed, surrounded by people waiting for me to speak, I want to be able to say, “It’s time to treat her.”