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In This Issue:
A partial leg amputation at an early age didn’t stop Sarah Billmeier, MD, from earning 13 medals in Paralympic skiing and six world champion skiing titles.
Billmeier lost her left leg above the knee to bone cancer in 1982, at the age of 5. Three years later, she learned to ski in New Hampshire. “My family is very active and into sports,” she said. “I never considered the option of not being an athlete.”
She began racing when she was 10 and made the U.S. Paralympic team four years later. With the team, she traveled around the world and won medals in France in 1992, Norway in 1994, Japan in 1998 and Salt Lake City in 2002.
Her determination extended far beyond the slopes—this athlete also found time to pursue her passion for medicine. She graduated from Dartmouth College in 2001 and continued on to Harvard Medical School. This summer, she began her residency in the Department of Surgery at BWH.
“The Brigham has a great attitude toward teaching,” she said. “I am honored to be able to learn from the well-rounded collective experience of Brigham physicians and staff in an environment dedicated toward providing a humanistic medical care.”
Billmeier looks forward to utilizing her past experiences in health care to better connect with patients, and to show that obstacles, surgical or otherwise, can be overcome.
For Shashi Ranganath, volunteering at a hospice in poverty-stricken Calcutta, India, was the perfect way to blend her love of helping people, interest in health care and desire to see a different side of the world.
After graduating from Yale University in 1999, the California-native packed her bags for Calcutta, where she worked for almost a year in a hospice center called Prem Dan, which means “gift of love” in Bengali.
“At first, the environment was traumatic,” Ranganath said. “I was staying in hostels with other volunteers in a city that is polluted and densely populated.”
Working with tuberculosis and AIDS patients in Prem Dan, which is run by Mother Teresa’s charities, gave Ranganath a new perspective. “You realize their lives are a lot harder than yours, so your goal is to make it better for them,” she said.
That wasn’t always easy since the patients spoke only Bengali. While cleaning, transporting patients and caring for wounds, Ranganath picked up a few words of the language, but learned to communicate with patients using hand gestures. “The patients were happy to have any interaction at all, so it was not a problem,” she said.
The experience made Ranganath more aware of suffering and the significant need for access to quality health care. She returned to the U.S. and worked briefly for an Internet start-up company in Washington, D.C., before enrolling at St. George’s University in Grenada for medical school. She completed her internship at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain.
Last month, Ranganath joined BWH Radiology for residency. “I like that a picture can tell so much about a person, including his or her diagnosis and what medications they take,” she said of Radiology. “It’s sort of like being a detective.”
Nirav Vakharia’s path to medicine included stops along the way in education, policy research and a refugee camp.
After graduating from Case Western Reserve University in 1997, Vakharia relocated to Washington, D.C., to teach inner-city seventh- and eighth-grade students as part of Teach for America for two years. “Everyone says they want to go out and make a difference, and I got to do that in this job,” he said. “You’re directly affecting 150 lives, plus the parents of those students.”
While in D.C. and later in Nashville, Vakharia also researched policy initiatives, including home schooling and pay-for-performance for teachers, for Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000.
After the election, Vakharia traveled to Thailand to train educators in Burmese refugee camps. The 150,000 refugees living there had access to education through the high school level, but there are no jobs or opportunities for higher education in the camps. “Most people weren’t allowed to work, and even if they could, there were no jobs in the camp,” Vakharia said. He trained high school graduates to teach science to others in the camp. “They were excited to have the opportunity to contribute,” he said.
After six months, Vakharia returned home to begin at Harvard Medical School. Last month, he joined BWH Internal Medicine. “Having been repeatedly in cultures and societies different than mine will help me understand where my patients are coming from and how someone’s lifestyle and environment might contribute to disease,” he said. “And having worked as a teacher, I feel well equipped to teach my patients about their health.”
For Michael Westerhaus, MD, a college spring break trip to Mexico became a career-defining experience. A biology major at Washington University in St. Louis, Westerhaus spent much of his time at school doing research in the neuroanatomy lab. When he managed to take a break from the books and go to Mexico for a week as part of a service trip, he met several U.S. doctors running a clinic with Mexican physicians, who invited his group to join them for the day. This experience changed Westerhaus’ mind about medicine and made him realize he wanted to work directly with patients.
After graduating, Westerhaus spent a year in Masaka, Uganda, as a volunteer for a public health project. There, he connected with families who had been disconnected by HIV and AIDS. One afternoon, he traveled from house to house to get a first-hand account of the prevalent health issues.
“I couldn’t believe that nearly every family consisted of children living with their grandparents,” he said. “The majority of these kids lost their parents to HIV and AIDS.”
Westerhaus returned to the U.S. in 2001 to attend medical school at Harvard, where he earned both his MD and a master’s in medical anthropology. He found time while pursuing his joint degree to return to Uganda, where he worked at Lacor Hospital, researching HIV transmission and caring for HIV patients living in war camps.
This summer, Westerhaus joined BWH Internal Medicine as a resident, and he plans to continue his outreach efforts to better understand international health issues and social inequalities.
“I really want to make a long-term commitment to improve health care in Uganda,” he said.