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From Madeira to Medicine

July 26, 2016
by Kayley McPhail '18

I have always been extremely interested in medicine for a wide range of reasons. First, from an academic perspective, like many, I hope to make a difference in people's lives and contribute to the future of medicine. Secondly, I believe health care is one of the most important aspects of a person’s life. Without health, what does one have? People may feel that they are busy or have problems, but in reality, no one has a real problem until they have a health-related issue. Healthcare problems and medical issues change everything, and healthcare professionals can truly make a difference in others' lives by helping people past some of the most critical issues that they may face. Without one’s health, nothing is really possible. Healthcare, in addition, is also one of our greatest political issues facing the United States today. Although recent legislation has enabled more people to obtain and keep health insurance, the increasing size of our elderly population, and their growing needs for long-term care, have not been adequately addressed. Healthcare and wellness will always be of importance, and these issues more than anything, continue to motivate me and push me towards a career in medicine.

In further pursuit of my goal, I was excited to be selected to represent The Madeira School as a delegate to the 2016 Congress of Future Medical Leaders organized by the National Academy of Future Physicians and Medical Scientists. Conferences such as this congress allow those interested in medicine to network with leaders in the field and learn more about innovations in healthcare. The speakers could be broadly classified into three groups: experts in various areas of medicine and related research, including six Nobel laureates and the deans of Georgetown and Harvard Medical Schools; patients who had benefited from cutting-edge medical procedures, such as a recipient of a face transplant; and high-achieving college students, including past winners of the Intel Talent Search and the Google Science Fair.

The first patient to speak to us was Ralph, who was introduced by the doctor who had saved his life after he had a heart attack, Dr. Zack Shinar. We learned that heart attacks at home are generally 98% fatal and Ralph had actually been pronounced dead on his way to the hospital. Dr. Shinar is a pioneer in the use of ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), a process in which blood is removed from the patient’s body, oxygenated, and then pumped into the heart backwards through the aorta to preserve the heart muscle. He used this procedure on Ralph and kept Ralph’s heart muscle cells from dying until they were able to get his heart beating again. The next patient was Larry Hester, who spoke about his condition, retinitis pigmentosa, and how he had gone fully blind around 30 years ago. He, however, was one of the first recipients of a bionic eye, which is attached to his glasses, and collects and sends light signals to an implant in his brain. He now is able to discern light from dark and various shades of grey in between, allowing him to reach across the table without knocking anything over when he wanted to hold his wife’s hand. He told us of seeing fireworks again and of seeing his granddaughters for the first time. I actually got to meet and speak with him directly - once at breakfast before he spoke to the congress (he was staying at the same hotel as I was!) and the other after he spoke, when I took a photo of his bionic eye. Another patient who spoke to us was Carmen Tarleton, the fifth person in the U.S. to receive a full face transplant after being brutally attacked and burned by her ex-husband.  She was introduced by the doctor who performed the procedure, Dr. Bodhan Pomahac, who has now successfully performed seven full face transplants. Carmen spoke about her surgery and her positive outlook on life, including her ability to forgive her ex-husband (who is now serving 40 years in prison) and get past the negativity, which was truly inspirational. The final patient to speak to us was Dr. Rick Sacra, who worked on medical missionary trips to Liberia, West Africa. On one of his trips, he contracted the Ebola virus and told of his struggle while ill and of the doctors who helped him to regain his strength and continue to help others in Liberia.

On the Monday morning of the congress, we watched a live hip replacement surgery performed by Dr. Anderson (Andy) Engh, who really engaged us throughout and welcomed our questions while he was performing the surgery. Dr. Engh answered all questions, from the type of anesthesia used and options available to details about specific sutures and the prosthetic hip’s different parts and their functions. He would calmly explain what he was doing to the patient and had the camera zoom in/out when needed to better show us what he was doing. This had a personal connection for me since Dr. Engh’s father (also Dr. Engh) performed a knee transplant on my late grandmother so she could dance at my parents' wedding. The surgery was, to say the least, a bit graphic - one delegate fainted when Dr. Engh popped the patient’s femur out of hip socket (you could hear it echo in the room!), and two more when he removed the ball of the femur and held it up to the camera so he could show us that all of the cartilage had been worn off of most of the ball.

We also heard about some amazing new research being done, like when Dr. Anthony Atala spoke to us about his work on growing artificial organs, including kidneys and livers, using human placental stem cells and 3-D printers. Sir Richard Roberts, a Nobel laureate, talked about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and, more particularly, golden rice. Golden rice is a strain of rice that produces beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A and a nutrient that can help prevent blindness and death (currently, over 600,000 children a year are estimated to die from vitamin A deficiency). We also heard of Thomas H. Marshburn’s work at the International Space Station as a surgeon and researcher. He worked as the Lead Flight Surgeon on the STS-101 and Expedition 7. He also developed the biomedical training program for flight surgeons and astronaut crew officers and managed the space station’s health maintenance system.

Needless to say, the congress was an amazing experience and certainly added to my desire to enter medicine as a profession.