Typically Atypical

Students excel outside of the classroom at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine

By Mayo Clinic Staff

After witnessing crushing poverty in India, Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine student John Schupbach started a nonprofit, Squalor to Scholar, to help students attend school and get essential health care. He, Theresa Cheng and Dr. Kayla Nixon each represent Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine's core principles in action.

Forget for a moment that Mayo Medical School is one of the most selective programs in the country with an acceptance rate of about 1 percent of all applicants. Instead, take a look at it from the eyes of students in the program.

Theresa Cheng saw intersections of law and health in unlikely places — impoverished sections of Peru, Haiti, India and China — when she decided that she'd need dual degrees to impact health care on a global scale. John Schupbach saw an opportunity to pursue a prestigious business degree and further a mission to help impoverished children in India. Kayla Nixon, M.D., found the chance to blend her voracious appreciation of art with a winding educational experience that even a hurricane couldn't thwart.

Theresa, John and Dr. Nixon represent just three stories in a school full of students and alumni that represent leaders, thinkers and achievers. Together, they collectively reflect the ideals of the school's core principles — to lead and transform the practice of medicine and to heal patients and a broken health care system.

LEAD: Theresa Cheng

"I want to connect with my patients but also help on national and international levels to provide care for marginalized populations. By combining my legal and medical degrees, I hope to help shape health care policy and transform medical care to deliver better health for all." — Theresa Cheng, J.D. (M.D. candidate)

After obtaining an undergraduate degree in cognitive neuroscience from Harvard College, Theresa Cheng, a native of South Carolina, traded the comforts of her Boston neighborhood for an impoverished section of Lima, Peru. As a volunteer for the Partners in Health organization, Theresa helped provide health care and develop national policies for preventing and treating tuberculosis and HIV.

While working among those struggling with extreme poverty, Theresa had an epiphany — to reach people on a global scale, she would have to pursue degrees in both medicine and law. The experience helped her understand that medicine is intertwined with human rights, and to provide the best care possible, doctors must understand the economic, political and social dynamics at play in each culture.

Soon Theresa had a plan. She would attend Mayo Medical School to gain the medical knowledge necessary to make a difference, and in the middle of that training, she'd get her law degree.

"Mayo Medical School is very supportive of students finding their own niches and defining their own voices in medicine," Theresa says. During her selectives, which are a unique feature of the school's curriculum in which students are given time to apply passions and areas of interest to medicine, Theresa studied around the world. "I traveled to Haiti, South Africa, India and China to learn more about their health care delivery systems and how medicine and health are defined in these countries. Although health is a fundamental human right, access to quality care varies significantly, even within U.S. borders. I have witnessed firsthand how health injustices are rooted in broader civil and human rights violations — our patients' well-being extends beyond the exam room into the realms of policy and law."

In 2014, Theresa earned her law degree with specialization in international law. Her passion and experience promoting women's rights earned her a place in front of the Thailand Senate Commission on Women's Affairs, Youth and Disadvantaged Populations, where she testified about coerced and forced abortions and sterilizations of HIV-positive women. In Thailand, she helped implement clinical training workshops for Thai nurses to abolish myths surrounding HIV transmission and introduced the idea of patient autonomy and choice to more than 200 active practitioners.

"As we see in many countries around the world, the lack of access to evidence-based, up-to-date medicine promotes ignorance and increased human rights violations," she says. "This opportunity gave me the chance to be on the ground and interview these vulnerable communities so I could gain a more thorough understanding of the difficulties they face and how the campaign could most appropriately and sensitively help."

Though still in medical school, Theresa is an international consultant for the United Nations Development Programme, where she helps draft recommendations to other governments in Southeast Asia for increased human rights protections for women with HIV.

"Not all who wander are lost," Theresa says in regard to her journey to find her joy in both law and medicine. "My path has been a convoluted evolution of passion, where every step has fed into the next and has made me increasingly aware of health care disparity and how I can help bring equality to medicine."

TRANSFORM: John Schupbach

"My work over the past four years in India has inspired my goal to help more than 1 billion people live longer, healthier lives." — John Schupbach (M.D. and M.B.A. candidate)

John Schupbach always wanted to be a doctor.

He designed his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering so that it would apply to the field of medicine. However, the medical school community could see that John wasn't quite ready when in 2010 he was not accepted after applying to several medical schools.

Undeterred, John traveled to the Faridabad slum just outside of New Delhi, India, to volunteer in the poverty-riddled hospital and neighborhoods.

"I witnessed overwhelmed and under-resourced medical care," John says. "So much so, I once observed only two surgeons perform 220 side-by-side, back-to-back laparoscopic tubal ligations in a single day." But at the same time, John says he met people who radically changed his perspective on life, suffering, hope and humanity.

"One of the most memorable experiences I had was when a young girl and her father showed up in the slum near my homestay, having traveled 600 miles to find my colleagues and me simply on the hope of being able to access medical care for a tumor engulfing half of her face."

This, more than any other moment, solidified John's commitment to help others through medicine. But the poor children of India inspired John to go beyond his original goals. He wanted to help kids who were extremely bright and excited to learn, yet who would never attend even a single day of school. So, John started a nonprofit organization called Squalor to Scholar.

Squalor to Scholar works with local leaders, physicians, school administrators, social workers and volunteers to give hundreds of children access to high-quality private educations and health care.

With the success of Squalor to Scholar and reaffirmation of the power of medicine, John decided to reapply to medical school. He spent more than two months rewriting and refining his medical school applications and was accepted to Mayo Medical School.

"I chose to attend Mayo Medical School because of its profound emphasis on individual patients, the commitment to innovation and the truly unparalleled experience of being at Mayo Clinic," John says.

Realizing that medicine was just one tool he needed to transform the world, John applied and was accepted into the M.B.A. program of Harvard Business School.

John will return to Mayo Medical School in 2017 to complete his third and fourth years.

When he graduates from Mayo Medical School, John will have the tools and experiences he needs to be the change he says the world needs.

John foresees the opportunity to help "empower hundreds of millions of individual patients who have never had access to quality medical care and teach them to understand, navigate and participate in their own care" as his mission.

HEAL: Kayla Nixon, M.D.

"Like colors that span across a canvas, compassionate care for the whole person intertwined with superior skill and persistent scholarship is what I see as the true art of medicine." — Kayla Nixon, M.D.

When Kayla Nixon was very young, she saw her brother suffering from lupus. He was in and out of hospitals for years. Her father, a physician, and mother finally found the right treatment for him at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.

"I've known I've wanted to be a physician ever since," says Dr. Nixon. "I was given an insider's view of medicine early on. I knew I wanted to help people so that they wouldn't have to struggle like my brother."

Dr. Nixon began her schooling at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.

However, two weeks into her freshman year, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and flooded 80 percent of the city. When the waters didn't recede and her campus and the city resembled a war zone under 6 feet of water, Dr. Nixon and 11 family members who lived locally returned to her hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. She enrolled in the University of North Florida for the remainder of the semester. After five months of intensive cleanup and reconstruction, Xavier University reopened, and Dr. Nixon and nearly 80 percent of her classmates returned.

"The aftermath of Katrina devastated people who already were disenfranchised and in need of basic services," Dr. Nixon says. "The disparity I witnessed made me want to do more, to give more."

She spent her free time volunteering at community services to help local residents.

After graduating from Xavier University, Dr. Nixon pursued her passion for the arts by completing a master's degree in History of Art and Design at the Pratt Institute in New York City.

"I'm an artist, and the opportunity to utilize the arts to humanize the health care experience has always appealed to me," Dr. Nixon says. "Art can remind people they are more than patients; it can uplift the whole person, provide comfort, relaxation and joy — even in the most difficult times."

Dr. Nixon was drawn to Mayo Medical School because of her familiarity with the Jacksonville campus and the alignment of Mayo's core values with her own beliefs. "I wanted to go to the best place there is, to make me the best physician I can be. The curriculum stood out from all other schools I considered, especially the student-directed learning experiences between blocks," explains Dr. Nixon, who graduated from medical school in 2015 and is in her first-year residency in obstetrics/gynecology at Mayo Clinic.

At Mayo, where humanities in medicine is a priority, Dr. Nixon has been able to strike a balance among the demands of residency training by integrating the research aspects of the arts into her practice and life as opposed to trying to keep all three separate. She says her love of art has taught her to see a situation through the eyes of another, whether that involves empathizing with the suffering or rejoicing in others' happy occasions. This perspective gives her a deep appreciation of her work as a physician.

"I want to heal my patients, but I believe healing is more than just not being sick or lacking a physical ailment. It's about being whole, addressing the psychological, mental, social and physical aspects of what makes us 'us.' "

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