Terrified of Swine Flu, or simply enjoy a good Michael Crichton version of death by a thousand diseases? Sarah E. Allen, M.D. is the woman you want to meet. Her television appearances during the Hantavirus outbreak include the McNeil Lehrer News Hour, and she has a delightful book, Africa Letters, recounting her experience as a visiting professor at a medical school hospital in Kenya, working on the “male ward”!
“…medical eyes see clinical, village and urban life…intertwined with humor.” Steve Walsh MD, University of California, San Francisco, about Africa Letters
Kristi: Welcome to How Did You Get There, Sarah. Please tell our readers what you do for a living.
Sarah: I am a physician, currently working at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. My area of expertise is Infectious Diseases and internal medicine. I care for patients with HIV, Cystic Fibrosis, Staph infections, and infections related to cancer treatment, tuberculosis. I am also very interested in immunizations and other preventative health interventions.
Kristi: Infectious Diseases? What made you interested in a field that most people associate with apocalyptic obliteration?
Sarah: Infections aren’t really scary if you understand how to prevent transmission. Also, an infectious diseases specialist has to know the whole body, not just a single organ. I liked being able to keep up my general skills.
Kristi: Excellent answer. I feel calmer already. How long have you done this?
Sarah: I graduated from medical school in 1985—that’s when I was officially a doctor, or “MD.” But I then did several more years of training in internal medicine and infectious diseases. However, all those years, you are really working as a doctor.
Sarah: Um, not sure. I finished my official training in 1991 and became a university faculty member where I see patients, as well as do research and teach.
Kristi: What do you like most about being a physician?
Sarah: It’s interesting, it’s fun, it’s touching. Medicine is a clash of basic science and humanism.
Kristi: I knew it– Cameron!
Sarah: I feel like I teach patients about their health and help them understand what is happening to their body, what they can do to prevent problems in the future.
Kristi: What do you think makes you suited to this particular specialty?
Sarah: I’m a somewhat obsessive person. I always liked to make lists of things to do and cross them out when I completed a task. Being a doctor involves getting the story from the patient, looking at test results, making a list of problems and possible solutions and then keeping track of all of it.
Kristi: OMG! Just like House’s white board!
Sarah: Unlike House, if you insist on going there– I like to think I’m friendly and put people at ease. I like it that patients feel comfortable sharing very personal parts of their lives with me.
Kristi: Right. You’re like House, only human. You’re the anti-House.
Sarah: If that’s your only frame of reference…
Kristi: I definitely want you as my doctor. I’m writing House today to tell him to take me off his waiting list.
Sarah: You mean the fictional character?
Kristi: Excuse me?
Sarah: Anyway. The patient-doctor relationship is very interesting. We don’t know each other when we first meet, but have an understanding that we will tell each other everything about the patient’s medical problems and be completely honest. It’s a good foundation for any relationship.
Kristi: Do you do couples therapy, too?
Sarah: I feel very passionate about preventing disease. When you see people suffer, it makes you want to prevent it from happening to someone else. So I’m constantly trying to keep up on prevention, or to catch diseases early. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Kristi: Did you develop your philosophy of communication, and passion for patient care, on the job or was it innate?
Sarah: I think a little of both. For example, I have learned how to communicate with patients and families over time. I am much better now at talking about death and dying, delivering bad news, or talking about scary issues than I was when I started.
Kristi: Did you work elsewhere before you became a physician?
Sarah: I did secretarial work for temp agencies before I went to medical school, during and after college.
Kristi: Did that in anyway lead to you being a physician?
Sarah: Being a secretary actually taught me a lot about various fields, though did not lead directly to my decision to become a doctor.
Kristi: What inspired you to go into the medical field?
Sarah: A conversation I had with my parents, in particular something my mother said to me. I had been interested in becoming a doctor, but I was very intimidated by the idea and didn’t feel I was smart enough. I went to a big, competitive college and had trouble keeping up with basic science classes and math, even though I had excelled in these fields in my public high school. My confidence was low. Looking at the table of contents of a human anatomy text book convinced me there was no way I could memorize all that stuff.
Kristi: What tipped the scales?
Sarah: Just before my third year of college, I was bemoaning my situation and told my parents I wished I could start college all over again, and try for medical school. Of course they encouraged me, but it was something my mother said that was the turning point. Getting out of her chair at the end of the conversation, she said, “I hope that’s what you do, because that’s what I wish I had done.” She did not feel sorry for herself, but it had a profound affect on me. I didn’t want any regrets in my life. I decided to go for it.
As it turns out, I’m a very good physician. It was hard work in medical school, but it isn’t all memorization. Some things are just unforgettable.
Kristi: This interview was unforgettable, Sarah. And as always thanks for playing along!