Newly graduated Brown doctor finds hope, humanity in inclusive community of students

Sheyla Medina, who graduated early from the Warren Alpert Medical School, will emphasize the intersection between medicine and humanism in a Virtual Degree Conferral ceremony address on May 24.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Dr. Sheyla Medina didn’t even know she wanted to be a physician until she was in her late 20s with a bachelor’s degree already under her belt.

Sheyla Medina headshot
Dr. Sheyla Medina

The idea came to her while working in Laos, developing and implementing projects related to providing different types of health services, with a focus on family planning and child nutrition, to communities with little or no access to care.

“I was working with a lot more health care providers than ever before, and I was energized by the dynamic nature of the work, from the micro to the macro level,” Medina said.

After completing a post-baccalaureate program, she landed at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, where she began to shift her work from global health toward pediatrics, a specialty in which she felt her knowledge of sexual health would be most impactful. She soon realized that she had a very good problem on her hands.

“I came in bright-eyed to Brown, thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so excited to be a pediatrician,” Medina said. “And then I get to my third-year clerkship and I realized, ‘Pediatrics is amazing, but... oh no, I love everything else just as much!’”

The ability to get exposure to so many specialties, from surgical oncology to obstetrics/gynecology and, eventually, internal medicine, is what she calls the “privilege of choice” — a concept Medina doesn’t take lightly.

“That privilege allows me to direct my education, direct my service to others, learn from these experiences and grow for the better,” she said.

In remarks set to be delivered on Sunday, May 24, at the medical school’s Virtual Degree Conferral ceremony, Medina — who was among nearly 50 medical students who volunteered to graduate early and received their M.D.s in April 15 to join the fight against COVID-19 — will recall the courage, curiosity and kindness of the medical community she calls home.

Prior to applying to Brown, Medina had the opportunity to visit to see whether the medical school would be a good fit. “I had no idea what to expect,” she said, “ but I was immediately greeted by incredible students. Their energy of positivity, resilience and honesty hooked me right away.”

She credits the potential of growing and learning with the students she met with the reason why she chose Brown.

“I sincerely believe that we, collectively as medical students, believe in human dignity,” she said. “We believe in the value of having a complex way of defining health, driven by the communities who experience it first-hand. We believe that health is a human right. And that rests really well with me.”

Crucially, Medina said, her classmates represent a wide swath of the population, from those who decided late in life that medicine was the right path for them to those who have dreamed about being a surgeon since they were 5 years old; from those with limited resources, to those who have anything they need to achieve.

For a first-generation immigrant from Peru who comes from a low-income family and shifted career paths late in her studies, Medina said that made all the difference.

“That kind of beautiful diversity of identities, circumstances, thoughts and passions — that community — is what brings new ideas to the field,” she said. “That brings us hope.”

But her journey was not without its challenges. Medina said it’s impossible to fully describe to others the intellectual and psychological demands that medical school requires, especially in the early stages of training. Striking the balance between how much to give yourself vs. how much to give to the knowledge you’re trying to gain is one of the many lessons that comes along with the med student experience, she said.

I know loss, love, illness and death. And that’s what being a physician is all about — the intersection between science and being human. You need to be able to do both.

Dr. Sheyla Medina 2020 M.D. graduate

Although Medina was essentially finished with her academic requirements by the Spring 2020 semester, it was not an easy one. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted her plans — first, to spend a month in Japan completing a month-long rotation in Tokyo focusing on sub-specialties in internal medicine, which was cancelled on the day it was supposed to begin, then trips to see friends and former colleagues and classmates in Thailand and Laos.

“I really wanted to take it all in that this was the region that inspired me to do this crazy thing called medicine,” she said.

Upon safely returning to Rhode Island from Japan, Medina began clinical rotations at the intensive care unit at Miriam Hospital, which she credits as one of the best learning experiences she had in medical school.

“The reasons that brought me from Laos back to the states to do medicine — which were always rooted in curiosity and a sense of service to others — I was still able to nurture when I came back to R.I.,” she said.

Medina’s experiences have allowed her to collect what she argues is the most integral part of becoming a physician: stories. Of them all, she remembers most vividly covering with a blanket a patient who was shivering in the emergency room, contending with complications from chemotherapy treatment.

Medina said she thinks of that patient often, because in that moment, she realized that her role was not only to talk with the patient about science, the background of the diagnosis, the reasons why their body was reacting to treatment, but it was also to be present.

“In the face of suffering, I will be here,” she said. “I will sit next to you. I will bring you another blanket and hear your story, because you, the patient, will tell me what’s wrong. The patient is the story. They have all the answers.”

The job of a physician, Medina explained, is to kindly put the pieces together to describe the story back to the patient and suggest what may be happening.

“I know loss, love, illness and death,” she said. “And that’s what being a physician is all about — the intersection between science and being human. You need to be able to do both.”

That’s something she’s confident she’ll be able to do in her future.

Medina has matched at the University of California San Francisco, where she will continue a three-year training program in internal medicine.

Serendipitously, the person who interviewed Medina as she applied to Alpert Medical School also attended UCSF. Medina said one week after Match Day, her interviewer wrote to say how happy he was that she had matched to his residency program, a gesture of support from medical students that Medina says has been consistent throughout her time at Brown.

“I can’t even speak to how wonderful it is so have such incredibly kind and humble people surround me as I continue in residency — the kind of people who will say, ‘I’m going to reach out my hand, just so you know you’re not alone, and we are in this together,’” she said. “I think that’s something that really lives on with the medical community.”