June 27, 2017

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Juggling Medical School and a Family Illness

ACMC Medical Student Emily Korman

Des Moines University medical student Emily Korman was on rotation at ACMC as a part of her medical student experience.

ACMC medical student Emily Korman had a normal childhood. She grew up in Cold Springs, Minn., with her mom, a teacher, and dad, a farmer, and her older sister. By the second grade, Emily knew she wanted to be a doctor. Now she’s making that dream come true as a medical student at Des Moines University.

“We were doing reports on our heroes in school. When second-graders think about heroes, often people like Superman and other action heroes come to mind, but mine was my family doctor. I was always interested in science and math, and it led me down the path to become a doctor,” said Emily.

Her medical school experience was like that of most medical students. Up until recently that is. Her third year of medical school started out with devastating news. It was the week before she was supposed to start rotations at ACMC when she received news no one wants to hear. Her mom had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“My mom has always been healthy, but early last summer she developed a cough that just wouldn’t go away. She went in for a check-up, and at that point, we were all thinking it was probably a sinus infection. But it got worse. To the point that she’d cough until she passed out,” said Emily. “The first time she went to the ER by ambulance, but they brushed it off as a coughing fit and she went home. It kept happening, and that was when I started to get really worried. I’m her daughter so of course I’m going to worry, but I’m also a medical student so all the things that could possibly be wrong kept floating in my head.”

The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong. At that point, Emily started pushing for more answers. By the end of July, they found the mass. It was outside of the lungs in the chest cavity. That’s when everything started to move really quickly—from diagnosis to chemo to treat the disease. “The tumor had grown really large by that point. It wrapped around the nerve to the vocal cord and paralyzed her vocal cord. She even lost her voice. The only option she had at that point was chemotherapy. They wouldn’t do surgery because of the risk.”

As a medical student, it was difficult for Emily to find the balance between being a daughter and providing her mom with medical advice.

“This whole experience has been scary for me. As a medical student, I see sick patients, but I’d never have thought this could hit so close to home. I was fortunate to be on rotations at ACMC in Willmar. Suddenly I’m only an hour from home as opposed to the five hours from medical school in Iowa. That really put my mind at ease.”

It was one of the doctors at ACMC who set things straight for Emily. “I tried to keep what was going on with my mom from everyone I worked with. I was here to learn, and I didn’t want my mom’s lymphoma to color my experience. But when I had to go home to be with her, I had to let those I was working with—fellow medical students, my preceptor and other providers—know what was happening with my mom. A doctor I had been on rotations with gave me advice that has really helped me through my mom’s journey. He reminded me that my mom has plenty of doctors who know what they are doing, but that she only has two daughters. She needs you there as her daughter. She needs you there as a part of her support system.”

Some days it was hard for Emily to be on her medical rotations, but she pushed through. She’d go home to help out around the house cooking and cleaning when she could. And if her mom needed her home for any reason, she was able to rearrange her schedule to make sure she could be there for her family.

Medical Student Emily Korman and her Mom

ACMC medical student Emily Korman at home with her mom.

“The life of a medical student is always interesting and typically very busy. It was an unexpected year. I’ve been blown away by my experience at ACMC from the interest everyone takes in helping to train and teach all of us medical students to the personal conversations and advice from so many who take a genuine interest in me beyond “Emily the medical student.” It’s opened my mind to practicing in a smaller community,” said Emily.

Perhaps the best part of the last year for Emily was finding out her mom was in remission; she is now four months tumor-free.

“My mom’s diagnosis was another challenge on my road to becoming a doctor, and while I wish it hadn’t happened to her, it’s provided a number of unexpected blessings. Our family really pulled together throughout the experience, and we’re even closer now than we were before,” said Emily. “It’s also helped me as a medical student. I’m more compassionate now; I make sure I treat all of my patients how I would want my family to be treated. I make it a point to thank every patient who lets me be a part of their care, because they are helping me with my education. They are helping me fulfill my life-long dream of becoming a doctor.”