Forty-one students will walk the stage Saturday in Roanoke to celebrate the end of their time at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.
Some are heading to other states to complete their residencies while 14 are staying in Virginia. Eight matched with Carilion Clinic.
One of them is Jane Gay, who is following in her family’s footsteps and starting her career at Carilion. Her brother Sam Gay is an anesthesiologist with Carilion, and her dad, William Gay, has been a pediatric cardiologist there since 1990.
When Jane Gay walked into the room for her first day of orientation, she was more than nine months pregnant. Two days later, she gave birth to her son Desmond.
Gay, a Roanoke native, had worked toward her medical degree ever since she graduated college. She spent several years working as a scribe at Carilion and had dreamed about being a dermatologist.
Once she learned her due date would be just before school started, people told her to defer a year. But she didn’t want to fall behind.
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“When I got in, it really felt like I got this dream that I had been working toward for so long,” she said. “I had a lot of people that helped me throughout that journey and I did not want to let down those people that fought for me to achieve it.”
Gay left her 5-day-old son at home and attended the first day of school with the rest of her class. She said she cried almost every day the first week as she tried to figure out when she could spend time with her son, study and get enough sleep.
She spent the first few weeks wondering whether she was doing the right thing. She said she knew her son wouldn’t be a baby forever and worried she was missing out on an important part of his life.
Thankfully her partner and Desmond’s dad, Kevin Dugan, stepped in to help her get through it all.
“There were definitely times where I hit a wall of studying so late, and then getting up in the middle of the night, that I almost felt like I couldn’t function,” she said. “He would always pick up that slack. Because I realized there did become a point where I would have so little sleep, so many days in a row, that I couldn’t even think in school.”
Her mother moved back from Maryland to help her with Desmond and her father, brother and sister-in-law stepped in when she and Dugan needed them the most.
“She has worked incredibly hard during medical school and her dad and I are so proud of her,” her mother Patricia Treffinger said. “She truly has done everything in her power to do well while being a mother and has sacrificed so much to achieve her goals of matching into dermatology.”
As Desmond grew up, Gay started to achieve the right balance between family and school. While at VTC, she started a clinical trial studying surgical site infections for Mohs surgery, a procedure used to treat skin cancer.
Over the course of the study, Gay will enroll 1,600 patients in total. She said she will be able to continue the project during her residency at Carilion.
“I’ve loved school, I’ve loved studying, I’ve loved learning and it’s really just been the highlight of my life,” Gay said. “It’s been hard balancing my family, but I really learned how much I love medicine and how much it’s a part of me and who I am and what I want for the rest of my life. I just couldn’t imagine my life without it.”
From Galax classroom to Mass General
Natalia Sutherland, an upcoming graduate, is the first VTC student to be matched into a residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, a Harvard-affiliated institute in Boston. She plans to study and practice internal medicine there.
Dean of Students Aubrey Knight said the Massachusetts General residency is arguably the top internal medicine program in the country.
“Her matching there is a testament to her work ethic and I have no question that she belongs there and that she is going to thrive there,” he said. “When she finishes her residency, multiple doors are going to be open to her to determine what the next phase in her career will be.”
The day Sutherland decided she was going to medical school, she was sitting in the back of her mom’s classroom. Her mother was teaching native Spanish speakers how to say simple phrases like “my back hurts” or “my stomach hurts” in English before they headed to a doctor’s appointment.
After the class left, Sutherland asked her mom, “Doctors are so smart. Why can’t they just learn Spanish?”
Her mom turned to her and said, “Well you already know Spanish, why don’t you be a doctor?”
Sutherland was only 8 years old at the time and becoming a doctor had never occurred to her. Growing up in the small town of Galax, there weren’t many female doctors, let alone female Hispanic physicians.
“I’d never seen that role filled by someone who looked like me,” she said. “So I felt like I was navigating uncharted waters for a little bit, but somehow it worked out and I’m here.”
Sutherland said she is torn between pursuing primary care medicine and becoming an oncologist.
Both of her parents are teachers and for a long time, Sutherland expected to do the same. After she graduated with a degree in chemistry from Emory and Henry College, she worked at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute doing neuromuscular research related to Lou Gehrig’s disease.
She worked there while she decided whether to pursue a medical degree or a Ph.D. Ultimately, she wanted to have that interpersonal relationship with patients that comes with being a physician.
She said the lessons of communication and teaching she learned from her parents will help her be a doctor who can teach people to better understand their bodies and their diagnoses.
“I like being able to boil it down and make it a little bit less scary and more approachable,” she said. “What I hope to do is help people understand themselves so that they can better incorporate a chronic disease or a scary diagnosis into their lives. That way it doesn’t have to define them.”
With that same goal in mind, Sutherland pursued research into brain cancer during her time at VTC. In March, she received a letter of distinction for her work.
Sutherland studied one of the most common and aggressive forms of brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme. The cancer grows so rapidly, and is so resistant to treatment, that doctors struggle to catch it early. Current treatments can usually only extend a patient’s life by a few months.
Now that she is graduating, Sutherland hopes another student can continue the research.
“The research project taught me a lot of things, but most importantly, how to dive through the literature and not just read the things that we know, but to look between the lines and understand what we don’t know yet,” she said. “I think it’s really important for physicians to have that skill because otherwise how are we to improve on the field of medicine?”
Sutherland will be moving to Massachusetts this summer to begin her residency. She said the skills she learned from medical school, her research projects and her mom’s classroom in Galax will come together in the next phase of her life.
Knight said she has flourished in school — becoming a natural leader who has earned her place not only at VTC, but in the medical field.
“She is empathic by her very nature,” he said. “It just exudes from her. She’s the complete package and I can’t wait to hear of the impact she’s going to have on medicine through her career.”