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Class Acts

The Miller School’s physicians of tomorrow bring a variety of experiences to their common goal

When asked, the more than 800 students at the Miller School will almost universally credit some mix of its four missions — medical education, biomedical research, clinical care and health equity — as the foundation for their decision to pursue a career in medicine. But that’s where the similarity ends, for they have walked many different paths in pursuit of their common goal. Beginning their journeys in a variety of birthplaces and backgrounds, they bring with them often dramatic experiences of personal illness and injury, family struggles and global adventure travel, as well as hobbies as diverse as tap dancing, photography and juggling. Yet within this variety lies another commonality: the shared belief in the value of human connection being critical to practicing and advancing world-class medical care. Here we present the inspiring stories of eight of our students.

A Pathway to a Dream

Luis Gutierrez, a fourth-year M.D./M.P.H. student, is completing a long journey to a career in medicine

“Even though I was only 5 years old at the time, I remember the night in 1997 when my parents packed all of our belongings into a single suitcase and we left our small farming town in Mexico,” said Luis Gutierrez, now 30 and a fourth-year M.D./M.P.H. candidate. “With $200 to our name, we began a journey to the United States in search of economic prosperity, educational opportunities and safety. We settled into a studio apartment in East Oakland, California, where my father found work in janitorial services and construction, and my mother sold food door to door.”

But in East Oakland they also found gang violence, drive-by shootings, drugs, poverty and little access to health care.

“Still, those barriers were minor in comparison to the sacrifices my parents made to give my younger sister and me a better life,” Gutierrez said. “And although other families went through similar struggles, many of the boys I grew up with are in minimum wage jobs, in jail or dead.”

The chance for a different future opened up in his freshman year, when the unified school district allowed students to choose their high school. Oakland Technical High School, modeled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a long commute on public transportation — a one-hour bus ride each way, starting at 6 a.m. — but it offered Gutierrez possibilities he had never dreamed of.

“Originally, I wanted to become a teacher, but Oakland Tech exposed me to medicine through summer programs and the ability to shadow physicians in the local community hospital,” Gutierrez said. “Those activities and an internship at Stanford [two hours each way by bus and train] for students whose background was similar to my own showed me that I could still teach but through medicine.”

Majoring in biology at the University of California, Berkeley brought him one step closer to that dream. In his senior year, he met another student who had participated in the Miller School’s Medical Scholars Program, run by the Office for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement (ODICE) for college students interested in medical school.

“I signed up and took the program in the summer of 2015,” Gutierrez said. “I graduated from Berkeley on a Friday, and the following Monday I was in Miami. The program, which is structured like a medical school mini-semester, showed me and others like me that a career in medicine was a real possibility.”

But summer wasn’t over. Six weeks later, after completing the Miller School program, Gutierrez flew back to Oakland to begin another training program, this time to become an emergency medical technician. For the next three years, he rode in an ambulance.

“I responded to calls not only from affluent neighborhoods, but also from jails, homeless shelters, safety net clinics and housing projects in vulnerable communities,” he said. “I learned much from my patients, many of whom rationed their medications, lacked access to healthy food, relied on public transportation for appointments or felt it was unsafe to exercise in their neighborhood.”

Gutierrez gave part of his salary to his parents but put 80% into savings for medical school. He chose the Miller School for three reasons: the ability to complete the M.D./M.P.H. program in four years, the very generous scholarship assistance he was offered, and the diversity in its students, faculty and patient population. Between his scholarships and his savings, he expects to graduate debt-free.

Gutierrez credits the unwavering support and encouragement he received from the Miller School, especially Dr. Nanette Vega, ODICE assistant dean, and Dr. Stephen Symes, associate professor of medicine, with helping him through occasional rough spots. He now looks forward to his residency — he recently matched with the University of California, Davis, in internal medicine — followed by a career specializing in either critical care medicine or cardiology.

“Internal medicine will allow me to use my enthusiasm for teaching, learning, teamwork, community engagement and problem-solving to better understand the whole person rather than just the disease,” he said. “It will give me the opportunity to improve health literacy, prioritize disease prevention, strengthen long-term patient relationships and provide a holistic approach to patient-centered care for disenfranchised communities.”

While Gutierrez has been in Miami, his wife, Michelle Reid, whom he met when both were undergraduates at UC Berkeley, continued at Berkeley in a Ph.D. program in biochemistry. After spending several years, including their first year of marriage, apart, both graduate this spring. At UC Davis, where she has taken a research position, they will finally be together again.

The Genetic Connection

A personal experience with consumer genetic testing set future head and neck surgeon Evan de Joya on a new path

You might say that Evan de Joya’s interest in genetics comes naturally. “I was only 6 years old when the first human genome was sequenced at a cost of $2.7 billion, and throughout my lifetime, genetic technology has developed exponentially,” de Joya said. As an undergraduate, he had a personal experience with direct-to-consumer genetic testing that opened his eyes to the incredible potential of the field.

The Chicago native pursued an undergraduate degree in biology and geography at UM, and participated in research that included a month of fieldwork with his professor in Zambia studying women’s health issues. As a sophomore, he was accepted to UM’s accelerated B.S./M.D. program. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, de Joya, now 25 and a third-year Miller School student, shifted his studies to the combined M.D./M.S. in Genomic Medicine program.

Reflecting on his third-year clinical rotations, he said, “the Miller School has a very strong reputation for medical education because of our clinical training. But until you start your clinical rotations, you don’t realize how different it is from other medical schools. The diversity of the patient population and opportunity for learning are unparalleled.”

Through his genomic medicine coursework, de Joya has been involved with research in head and neck cancer and hearing loss. “Being a student at one of the top NIH-funded genetics institutes, you have access to research projects in nearly every discipline.” As he prepares to begin the next phase of his training, he says, “It is a privilege to come into my career as a physician during this period of unprecedented innovation. From my research, I know there is immense potential for improving the treatment paradigms for head and neck diseases, and I am ready to get to work.”

On the Road

After hitchhiking around the world, Douglas Sirutis found his purpose: building ‘conscious connections with other people’

A medical career should have been obvious for Douglas Sirutis, a third-year M.D./M.P.H. student. After all, his father is a pharmacist, his mother a nurse-anesthetist, and his brother a fellow in pain management. But Sirutis, who earned an undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Florida, flirted with dentistry, walked away from an unfulfilling business career, and ultimately set out to find himself and his future. Sirutis, now 30, lived on $15 a day and visited 51 countries while spending two and a half years on the road.

“I volunteered, backpacked and couch-surfed throughout Europe and Latin America,” he said. “I spent rough nights at border crossings, riverbeds and gas stations, and countless hours hitchhiking at intersections and on-ramps. In the process, I witnessed global wealth inequality and discovered the value of service to others.”

Sirutis says he can now empathize with those whose daily challenges involve where they are going to sleep, when they will bathe next or how they are going to get somewhere with everything they own. “I stayed in the homes of families who didn’t have consistent access to water, spoke at a village school where most will have a difficult time excelling beyond selling snacks on the streets, and saw homes crumble under the forces of nature,” he said. “My highest sense of what is right and what is good makes me want to address this inequity at home with my life’s work. I want to help those in need take care of the center of their well-being — their health.”

Sirutis says “living with less” abroad exposed him to a lifetime’s worth of altruism. “When I look at a map, the memories that jump out all revolve around people,” he said. “I see the Chilean family I helped in building their treasured, naturally constructed home, and the Croatian stone sculptor who was revamping the outreach for his late-in-life dream — a visionary art park. I see the Surinamese family who all shared a room one night so they could invite me off the street to have a bed in their home. I see the older Montenegrin man who relentlessly tried to get me out of the cold and to sleep in his house before I finally understood him and did so. The romanticized concept of travel pales in comparison to the transcendent feeling of connection with people when we selflessly care for one another.”

He plans to pursue psychiatry. “For me, the wanting is not to go into medicine, but to engage in a conscious connections with other people,” he said. “Knowing that helping the patient manage their health is the good thing to do is what drives me. If I can give others more understanding, peace and comfort through genuinely caring for them when they feel powerless, that would be my honor.”

The Role of a Lifetime

Tiffany Eatz says her show biz experience will make her a better doctor

“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Tiffany Eatz, 27, a third-year M.D. candidate, is about to turn that old joke on its head. The Screen Actors Guild cardholder has been an actress, singer, dancer, model, choreographer and screenwriter, but she says medicine will be her most important role. The Long Island, New York, native isn’t kidding: A budding neurosurgeon, Eatz has nearly 40 prospective publications on her CV. But she notes that “empathy and compassion are as important as training and technique,” and that connecting with patients is the critical first act in the drama of treatment and cure.

Eatz’s love for performing got an early start, “When I was 3, I used a wooden spoon as a microphone and watched my reflection in the dishwasher door as I danced and sang to pop songs,” she recalled. But life turned serious when she was 8, and she wrote a letter to her beloved grandmother promising to cure the pancreatic cancer that was killing her. It was a child’s sweet expression perhaps, but a promise she never forgot. Her pediatrician — Broadway-actress-turned-physician Heddy Zirin, M.D., who still performed occasionally in community theater — was an early role model, demonstrating that science and art could blend into a rewarding life. “I was the only kid I knew who didn’t mind going to the doctor,” Eatz said, laughing.

Eatz earned her undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins University, where she mixed sciences, writing and theater. Then came two gap years in New York, where she pursued a number of performance opportunities. “It was an absolute blast,” she said. “I acted, danced and modeled in SAG-AFTRA films, TV series and music videos. I wrote a feature-length animated hip-hop screenplay based on Death Row rapper Sam Sneed’s life that is in pre-production. And I got a golden ticket on So You Think You Can Dance for tap/hip-hop fusion. In this upcoming year, I plan to write and release a music album and book of poetry and perform shows and tours when time allows.”

But her desire to pursue medicine never wavered, and she chose the Miller School because of its well-rounded curriculum, excellent clinical training and the opportunity to work up close and personal with patients at three very different hospitals. “Lots of other schools didn’t offer that breadth,” she said.

In addition to her classroom studies and third-year rotations, Eatz has found time for research, community service and — no surprise here — running a Miller School dance team called Beats Per Minute. Neurosurgery and neurointerventional radiology hold special interest for her. “I highly value extreme bodily coordination, research and speedy, integrative innovative thinking,” she said. “I think neurosurgery is the perfect combination of these elements, bridging the right and left sides of the brain, allowing for creativity and art in medicine.”

Eatz admits that the attraction is also based, in part, on the fields being less than 10% women. She said with a smile, “There’s a script I’d like to help rewrite.”

A Surgeon Who Listens

A mix of passion and principle drives Allison Draper to make a difference with her patients and in the community

Allison Draper, a fourth-year M.D./M.P.H. student, recalls the defining event in her Miller School training:

“‘How did it go?’ a 35-year-old woman who had just undergone a unilateral mastectomy asked her surgeon when we entered the room. She and I had spent the morning together in pre-op looking at photos of her young children as she confessed her fears of the pending pathology. As she eagerly awaited the surgeon’s reply, I saw a mixture of fear and faith in her eyes. The trust in their relationship was palpable. I watched as the surgeon sat down and gave her the news, ending with ‘but we got it all.’ That was the moment I knew I had to be a surgeon.”

But the kind of surgeon the Seattle native wants to be stems from an illness she developed when she was 12. “I was passed around from doctor to doctor until I finally found the right one,” Draper, now 28, said. “He was the first doctor who listened to me. Because he listened, we were able to work together and come up with a treatment plan that worked. I want to be a surgeon who listens to her patients.”

Having matched with a surgical residency at Broward Health Medical Center, she is now one step closer to that goal, but Draper also wants to teach. “I fell in love with teaching in the anatomy lab,” she said. “Completely overwhelmed and covered in formaldehyde, my classmates and I learned how to lean on each other to succeed as a group. Some of my greatest joys have been watching junior medical students confidently explain the pathology we had reviewed together earlier that week. Last fall, I developed and implemented a cadaver anatomy training session at the start of the clinical surgery clerkship. It required me to coordinate curriculum, staffing and ethical donor logistics between multiple departments. While it was challenging, I enjoyed the creative problem-solving that was required.”

Draper, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Duke University, was interested only in an M.D./M.P.H. program. “I saw how intertwined public health is with medicine, and I knew I had to learn both,” she said. “A devastating example that I saw all too often is that Black women are more likely to present with late-stage breast cancer, more aggressive subtypes, and overall have worse survival outcomes. It is my duty and my privilege as a future surgeon to acknowledge social inequalities and to advocate, through my outreach and research, for a more equitable health care environment.”

A New Game Plan

A serious sports injury inspired Jamie Clarke to spend her career changing — and saving — lives

“I am lucky to be writing this sentence,” is how Jamie Clarke, M.S., began the personal statement in her medical school application. “Seven years ago, I suffered a traumatic brain injury in a basketball game that nearly ended my life.” The 5-foot-10-inch forward had collided with an opposing player, falling headfirst to the floor and knocked unconscious for more than two minutes. When she awoke, there was an intense headache and ringing in her ears that would last for the next 10 months.

“I missed a year of high school, requiring a lot of drive to catch up,” said the Chicago native, now 25 and a third-year M.D. student. “After I had seen countless doctors, all of whom were puzzled by the complexity of my case, one neurosurgeon and his team finally developed a feasible surgical plan. The surgery relieved my symptoms, and with much physical and occupational therapy, I fully recovered.”

Clarke found being a patient eye-opening. “I saw how easy it was to slip between the cracks if you had a difficult-to-treat injury or illness,” she said. It turned her focus away from basketball and toward medical innovation.

“I was inspired by my injury to do research — to learn how to fill in the gaps in the knowledge we already have,” she said. “I chose the Miller School in part because the opportunities to do research and be mentored here are incredible. There was also the opportunity to work at three separate hospitals, each with very different structures and patient populations. I knew I could grow into a scientifically, clinically and socioeconomically knowledgeable bilingual physician here.”

As a patient-turned-physician, Clarke has demonstrated empathy to her UM and Jackson patients. “Being a patient has invaluably benefited my interpersonal skills when working with patients and colleagues,” she said. “There is no better preparation for becoming a compassionate, thoughtful physician than being a patient, so for that I am deeply thankful.”

Clarke earned her undergraduate degree in human biology, with minors in Spanish and policy-oriented health care studies at the University of Southern California, followed by a master’s degree in global medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Her interest in research continues unabated: While she is attending the Miller School, she is also a researcher in neuroradiology and neurosurgery at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital and Stanford University. Since joining the Miller School, her CV has added a over dozen awards and honors; many academic journal publications on topics including aneurysms, hydrocephalus, congenital malformations and neuroimaging technology; two dozen oral and poster presentations at conferences; and an equal number of leadership citations for academic and scientific organizations and community service activities.

Clarke also founded a research symposium through the American Physician Scientist Association’s UM Chapter that allowed nearly 50 students from six medical schools to share their research with the UM community and featured world-renowned physician-scientist speakers. She is eagerly planning the next annual symposium to continue giving students a platform during to share their biomedical research.

Does she have any spare time? Apparently so, because she plays guitar (mostly Beatles tunes), is an accomplished juggler and, yes, occasionally still shoots hoops.

Clarke will soon be applying to residencies in diagnostic radiology, with the goal of becoming a pediatric neuroradiologist. Her personal statement ends, “Looking ahead, I await the moment in 20 years when a patient of mine applies to medical school, capable of doing so because I saved their life.”

Bringing ‘Sizzle’ to Neurosurgery

For Krisna Maddy, medicine is all about making connections

Seeing a drug addict in Haiti hold a knife to her father’s throat, demanding that he hand over everything in the pharmaceutical cabinet in his medical practice, was a defining moment on Krisna Maddy’s path to becoming a doctor. The second-year M.D./M.S. student in Human Genomics was 3 years old when her parents, both physicians, decided to return to their home country of Haiti from Mexico, where they had been living and where Maddy was born.

“My parents’ lives would be threatened three more times because they were physicians, and one of their friends was kidnapped and killed,” Maddy, now 26, recalled. “I learned that being able to use medicine to heal patients and communities was something worth fighting for, but also that to serve, you had to survive.” After just six months, the family left Haiti and moved to Miami.

Seeing her parents’ practice solidified Maddy’s early interest in her own medical career. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was a pre-med major. It was at Penn that a friend who worked in a recording studio handed her a microphone and asked her to give rap a try. The friend dubbed her “K-Sizzle,” a nickname that stuck.

After graduating from Penn, research work she had done there led Maddy to spend two gap years at the Miller School’s Hussman Institute for Human Genomics before she entered medical school in 2020. Last year, she received the Black Lives Matter Summer Fellowship in Neurosurgery, which she spent doing research at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

Despite her love for science and medicine, Maddy believes her personal background is what enables her to make special connections with patients and in the community. “I learned to speak Spanish, Haitian Creole and French before I learned to speak English,” she said. “This has been especially useful in clinical rotations, health fairs and volunteer clinics. I use language as a tool to provide comfort to those not always afforded equality when they enter a medical space.”

Maddy’s commitment to activities outside the classroom has found many expressions at the Miller School, among them project management at the Center for Haitian Studies Clinic, presidency of the UM chapter of the Student National Medical Association and volunteering at DOCS health fairs. Her desire to give back stems in part from the welcome she received here. “I believe what I found at the Miller School I wouldn’t have found anywhere else,” she said. “It’s research-oriented and academically excellent, but it’s also connected to my core values. It felt the most like home — warm and welcoming.” Scholarship assistance further cemented her choice.

Maddy’s career focus is neurosurgery. “I’m fascinated by the brain and how much we still have to learn about it,” she said. “Neurosurgery is solution-oriented, often offering a tangible fix.” And she plans to bring her own special brand of “sizzle” to the field.

“Medicine can give us power over our health and push us into the future,” she said. “I am determined to have a mix of bravery and social good, like that I saw in my parents, define my life’s work.”

Giving Patients a Purpose

Elder care enthusiast Harsh Moolani found an antidote to end-of-life loneliness

“I was splashing rather than swimming.” That’s how Harsh Moolani, a first-year M.D./M.P.H. student, described his frustrating search for focus. The Karachi, Pakistan, native, whose family immigrated to Owensboro, Kentucky, when he was 5, wasn’t lacking in interests. Rather, his problem was having too many. But Moolani, now 23, ultimately found his direction — not by eliminating possibilities, but by identifying where they overlapped.

It began during his sophomore year at Washington University in St. Louis, where he earned his undergraduate degree in neuroscience. “I was volunteering with hospice patients at a number of facilities,” he recalled. “I met many older adults in the final months of their lives. As I heard their stories, it became clear how much they still wanted to be part of their community. The problem for many of these patients was that the family and friends around them had begun to disconnect. That’s when I saw the problem of severe loneliness in long-term care.”

By the end of his junior year, Moolani had launched Create Circles, a nonprofit that pairs trained students with seniors to work on longitudinal projects. “Companionship is not enough to address loneliness,” he said. “A visit is brief respite, but afterward the loneliness sets in again. However, when we help develop a sense of purpose, the patients feel like they permanently belong. If the patient likes to cook, the project might be a book of recipes — a different one each week. It gives the patient something to look forward to, something larger than themselves.” Moolani graduated a semester early and spent the next 18 months getting Create Circles off the ground. He remains president of the nonprofit, and today it interacts with thousands of seniors each week.

Moolani also began exploring governmental, regulatory and socioeconomic influences on health care. If elder care became his passion, the intersection of policy, management and health innovation became his focus. That is why he was drawn to the Miller School’s M.D./M.P.H. program. “The M.D. is very patient-oriented,” he said, “while the M.P.H. helps me understand the scope of a problem and what the possible interventions can be. We currently have a gap between those who design care and those who deliver it. I’m trying to bridge that gap.”