Following Your Passions

Becoming a doctor isn’t easy: It takes drive and passion. Thankfully for Sara Gottlieb, a first-year medical student at Rush Medical College, she has plenty of both, and some to spare. Gottlieb defied the advice of many and came to Rush to follow a childhood dream. With her, she brought a fierce determination to embrace all her passions, which include not only medicine but a love of language, pride in her Jewish identity, and a commitment to social justice and health equity.

Here Gottlieb discusses what brought her to Rush and how she has juggles her many interests.

When did you know you wanted to be a doctor?

I knew I wanted to go to medical school long before I went to college at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Even in second grade I said I wanted to be a doctor. So, I started out in college studying biological sciences with the intent of pursuing neurological sciences.

But that was a lot of science, and I had other interests. I also wanted to study Spanish. I spoke Spanish the first couple years of my life in Los Angeles and wanted to reconnect with the language. I ultimately earned my bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Portuguese Studies. But the plan to go to medical school never changed. While majoring in Spanish and Portuguese, I also took premed courses. I knew that ultimately, I could use my language skills as a physician.

During that time, I also explored other passions. While an undergraduate, I was president of a pro-Israel political advocacy group, and they offered me a full-time job when I graduated. At first, I hesitated, because I knew my ultimate plan was to pursue a medical degree. But they persisted, understanding that eventually I would need to leave and follow my dreams, and I finally accepted their job offer.

What was that job like?

I lived in Washington, D.C. for two years, travelling often throughout the Midwest to visit colleges and partner with school governments and political groups on issues related to the U.S.-Israel relationship. In my travels, I met many students who, like me, wanted to go on to study science or go to medical school. It was a constant reminder that I had other goals. While I loved Israel and politics, ultimately it wasn’t my only love. This experience made me realize that you can incorporate a lot of passions into what you want to do. As a doctor, I can be politically engaged and advocate for others. It doesn’t need to be an either/or situation.

What eventually brought you to Rush?

I applied all over the country to places where I could see myself living. I had grown up in the Midwest, so Chicago was on my radar; my brother was in law school here, and I knew I had a support system nearby. On the day of my interview at Rush, I was sold. The way the students and professors interacted really made an impression: They were genuine, tight knit and just very open. I wanted every student I met to be my friend; better yet, I wanted them to be my doctor.  Later, when I pictured myself at medical school, I visualized myself in the halls and libraries of Rush. That’s when I knew it was really right.

Tell me about the Correctional Health Initiative.

The Correctional Health Initiative started about three years ago. It’s part of the Rush Community Service Initiatives Project, and it was the brainchild of a Rush Medical College student who saw the lower educational attainment, lower socioeconomic levels, and higher rates of trauma, chronic diseases and mental illnesses among female inmates and realized it was an important public health concern.

We now go to Cook County jail every Saturday to deliver health care education to women. We follow a 10-week curriculum that addresses issues related to women’s health, first aid, chronic health problems, skin and bone health, and more. Each woman gets a booklet that includes health information as well as resources on housing, substance abuse counseling and smoking cessation. At the end, we give out certificates of completion that can be used at court dates or job interviews to demonstrate their commitment to self-improvement and education. The program is completely voluntary, and we get great participation and an enormous amount of positive feedback from the female detainees and staff. Along with three other Rush University students, I co-lead this effort.

Any other extracurricular activities?

I’m one of the leaders of the Rush Buddies Program, in which student volunteers spend time with children in the Rush University Children’s Hospital. I also co-lead the Med-Peds interest group and help coordinate their events, as well as co-chair the Jewish Students Association, which hosts events and educates students about what it’s like to be Jewish at Rush. And, I’m an admissions ambassador and give tours to prospective Rush students; I hope to give them that same sense of belonging that I felt on my interview day.

Does that leave time for class work?

It does. And I’ve been lucky to be able to incorporate my experiences with CHI into my school work. In fact, we recently presented a poster based on our work at the jail, the needs we’ve seen, and what we’ve accomplished. Our poster won the competition at the Rush Global Health Symposium. And for my Capstone project, I’m also focusing on correctional system health issues. Everything I learn through my Capstone project is applicable to my work with CHI, and vice versa. It’s nice to be able to make those connections and bring it all together.

Do you have any idea of what specialty you want to pursue?

Right now, I’m interested in pediatric oncology. Paul Kent, MD, pediatric oncologist, was my preceptor, and I had the opportunity to work with him for several months. He’s a great mentor because he really enjoys what he does, and he is also very involved in social justice and health equity. He’s a good role model in that he’s someone who does what he loves in his career and pursues his passions outside of work as well.

Do you have any tips for prospective students?

My biggest piece of advice: Just do it. Many people tried to talk me out of going to medical school, and many people may try to convince you to follow another path. Don’t listen to them! If you want to pursue it, just do it. Even when I’ve been in the library for the fourteenth straight hour, I’ve never once regretted medical school. If I had listened to others, I would be sitting in a cubicle right now. Now that, I would regret.