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Nourishing a Health Care Career: A Rush Alumna’s Full-Circle Moment

Vintage photo of a woman holding twin babies and smiling outdoors

by Gema Tinoco

As a student, Chelsey Geurkink quickly embraced Rush University’s standard to provide innovative and compassionate health care. Her dedication to her profession led her back to Rush, and a very unexpected reconnection.

Geurkink, an alumna and newly appointed faculty member in the College of Health Sciences at Rush University, shared her full-circle moment in a LinkedIn post that reached over 50,000 views over the summer.

In the social media post, Geurkink shares her adoption story and the struggles of suffering from severe malnourishment before adoption. Geurkink’s future determinations were shaped by the persistence of Michael Yaffe, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist and alumnus of Rush Medical College. Doctor Yaffe encountered the twins upon their arrival in the U.S. at 18 months old and quickly identified the source of their malnourishment, allowing the twins to regain strength to survive.

“Years [after graduating from Rush University] I discovered Dr. Yaffe was a graduate of Rush Medical College,” Geurkink shared in her LinkedIn post. “I wanted to be like him and make a difference.”

Vintage photo of a seated man holding smiling twin babies

The Geurkink twins were adopted from Quito, Ecuador by two physicians from the Madison, Wisconsin area. Their adoptive parents needed help to diagnose gastrointestinal (GI) issues contributing to the twin’s malnutrition. They were aware of Yaffe’s well-respected work in the community, so the family sought his medical savvy to find a diagnosis.

“If infants aren’t given a steady intake of human milk or formula, their GI tract can’t develop the enzymes that break down lactose and other proteins,” Geurkink says. “In response to our malnourishment, our bodies developed an allergy to milk and soy protein. When we ate, the food wasn’t providing us with nutrients. Dr. Yaffe used exceptional insight and judgement to eventually solve our medical issues and we quickly began to thrive.”

‘My destiny’

Later in her life, Geurkink moved to Chicago after earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I had always been interested in working in the laboratory,” she says. “I Googled universities offering laboratory education, and Rush’s program appeared along with its longstanding reputation of excellence in the Chicago area. This secured my belief that pursuing laboratory science at Rush University was my destiny.”

In 2015, Geurkink received a Bachelor of Science in Medical Laboratory Science from Rush University and continued her education through Rush University’s Clinical Laboratory Management and Specialist in Blood Bank Technology (SBB) graduate program within the College of Health Sciences. In 2020, Geurkink accepted an instructor role in the online SBB Program.

Geurkink wanted to express her gratitude for the work Yaffe does and the inspiration he left behind. With the help of the writers of this story, she was able to successfully connect with Yaffe, and the pediatric gastroenterologist was proud to hear of Geurkink’s achievements and well-being.

“It’s the job of physicians to hear about what goes wrong, but we don‘t get to hear enough about what went right,” Yaffe expressed, his emotions evident over the phone call. “You close your eyes at night and pray you wake up and do your best job the next day.”

Prehistoric plants and a historic class of physicians

In exchange for the good news about Geurkink, Yaffe shared the story of his own beginnings in medicine.

“I remember knowing on Match Day that my dream would be enabled at Rush,” he says.

Yearbook photo and current photo of Michael Yaffe, MD

A graduate of the Rush Medical College Class of 1979, Yaffe was among a group of students who joined the university’s first-year program in 1975 without an undergraduate degree. He thanks mentors like Allan T. Luskin, MD, for the leap of faith in taking the students under their wing. Today, Luskin, an allergist and immunologist who established and directed the Allergy/Immunology Training Program at Rush Medical College, is a colleague of Yaffe’s at SSM Health Dean Medical Group in Wisconsin.

Yaffe described the Class of 1979 as a group of eclectic individuals that included a naval academy graduate, an Olympian and a former White Sox player.

“In comparison to other universities, Rush had a collection of students with unique talents and perspectives. I had a specialty in prehistoric plants, but I was qualified to serve my patients’ needs,” Yaffe joked about his background in paleobotany.

Yaffe reflected on how his full-circle moment in Geurkink’s life and endeavors was influenced by Rush University’s institutional foundations. His first-year program was a distinguishable experience, as Rush University partnered with Knox College at the time to provide students with a chance to work with small-town physicians. This prepared him to later work in the Madison, Wisconsin region, where he would eventually meet the Geurkink twins.

“This was a positive experience for all of us, giving us one-on-one interactions I’m convinced we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else,” he says.

Geurkink’s own perspective and values align with Yaffe’s, which is present in her approach toward teaching, and demonstrates the impact of intergenerational connection.

“Coming from a family that was heavily involved in the medical community, I’ve learned that medicine is best practiced when it’s community-centered and collaborative,” she says. “This is what education brings.”

Chelsey B. Geurkink, MLS(ASCP) SBB

Screen shot of a LinkedIn post that reads, With this story I hope you are inspired (much as I am) to make a difference in your designated life passion/gift because what you do matters and can change the course of someone's life