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The Catalyst

Graduate shows grit in shadow of adversity

By Cindy Abole
Public Relations

May 17 is a day that College of Medicine graduate Louise Anne Alexander, M.D., has dreamed about for many years.

Louise Anne Alexander wouldn’t let being hit by a car stop her from receiving her M.D. Today, May 17, she will officially be known as Dr. Alexander.
Louise Anne Alexander wouldn’t let being hit by a car stop her from receiving her M.D. Today, May 17, she will officially be known as Dr. Alexander.

Ever since the Greer native was a child and throughout high school, she knew she wanted a career that involved interacting with or caring for children. She volunteered at hospitals and other activities that involved children. Alexander was able to translate that passion to medicine after taking a medical practice course offered through Clemson University’s Department of Biological Sciences. After completing that class, she could not imagine herself doing anything else.

Alexander started medical school at MUSC in summer 2008 and was unexpectedly hit by a car while jogging on July 8, 2010.

Alexander had just spent the day in the Colbert Education Center & Library studying for step one of the medical licensing boards, which was to be completed prior to the third-year of medical school and clinical rotations. She had arrived at a stopping point in her studies that afternoon and decided to take a break with an easy jog around downtown Charleston’s Colonial Lake and back again. Alexander never made it past the corner of Ashley Avenue and Calhoun Street.

When she woke up, every part of Alexander’s body was hurting as she was loaded into an ambulance. She didn’t remember being hit by a large SUV and that people came to her aid. The near-death accident was not part of her plans, and it nearly derailed her academic priorities and dreams of becoming a physician.

In MUSC’s adult emergency department, Alexander was diagnosed with multiple broken vertebrae in her back and ribs, and some vision loss due to hitting her head and blacking out.

She spent the first three weeks on her back recovering on a couch and managing her pain with medications.

“Everything hurt,” she said. “Mostly, I just lay in a dark room because of the pain. I didn’t want to talk, listen to music or interact with anyone.” Her parents became fearful as they realized the severity of her injuries and the long road of healing that was ahead.

Not long after the event, she contacted the COM dean’s office and Chris Pelic, M.D., former associate dean for student affairs, about her situation. He assured her that everything would work out and that her immediate focus should be on her much-needed care.

Within three weeks, she arrived at Pelic’s office to discuss her choices and devise a course of action for her scenario. It was the first time since the accident that Alexander left her house, and she struggled to sit upright in a chair. He remembers seeing Alexander at perhaps her most vulnerable moment with tired bloodshot eyes, bruises and road rash scrapes throughout different areas of her body. He reassured her that despite the seriousness of her injuries, the timing of this accident, at a gap between the end of her basic science studies and the start of her clinical years, was ideal in terms of her academic schedule. Pelic (now associate dean for student career planning and advising) offered her support at any level by the college’s Group on Student Affairs throughout her recovery.

“It was a tough time for me,” said Alexander. “I realized I was at the peak of one of the most intense study periods of my life in medical school where I felt I was the most efficient, most productive and most challenged to not being able to do anything. It was a struggle for me to accept.”

The decision to take almost a year off from school to heal allowed Alexander to rest and be introspective of her medical school career and long-term goals. She realized she missed a good work-life balance, especially in her early years of medical school.

For the next few months, she and Pelic communicated openly via email. Together, they formulated a course of action to study and take the necessary steps to prepare for her comeback to medical school.

A faith-filled person, Alexander dug deep, reminding herself of the healing profession that she had committed to as one that preserves, saves lives and diagnoses problems.

At the start of her first clinical rotation in May 2011, Pelic served as Alexander’s mentor for a psychiatry rotation at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center. She remembers starting out slow and a little nervous, but adjusted quickly with Pelic’s guidance and the reassurance of her peers.

“Usually I’m motived, hardworking and focused when it comes to serving my patients and supporting my student team. During my return, I felt like a fish out of water and didn’t know how to do this. Dr. Pelic helped by setting high and clear expectations, but providing all the guidance and support necessary to achieving them,” Alexander said.

As she completed more clinical rotations, Alexander’s confidence in herself grew. Spending more time with students, she got to know people in her new medical class and formed relationships. She performed so well academically that she was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society, a group that recognizes the top students in the school class.

When it came time to choose a medical specialty, Alexander loved aspects of various areas of medicine, but after completing her core clerkships she really enjoyed pediatrics or obstetrics and gynecology. Because of the timing of the accident and the accommodations the Dean’s office made to maximize her training post recovery, she finished her core clerkships with more time left than most students to complete selective rotations. She wanted more time to explore her decision in what medical field she wanted to pursue. 

A mentor convinced her to explore pediatric anesthesiology. She completed a selective rotation at MUSC and loved it. “I realized that I could spend more time with patients in anesthesia than in any other medical field awake or asleep,” she said. She conducted some published research in her fourth year with the Department of Anesthesia and Perioperative Medicine.

On National Match Day, she was selected for Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s anesthesiology residency and plans to complete a fellowship in pediatrics.

“These experiences teach us skills we need to possess to be strong and resilient. As physicians we can get incredibly stressed at times,” Pelic said. “Louise’s story is an example of a person who was not too proud to ask for help, consulted with a team of professionals to establish a plan and took time off to get well. We want all our students to succeed and reach their own potential.”

Alexander believes that her accident renewed her sense of purpose, strengthened her personal relationships and deepened her ability to empathize and care for others.

“I found that as I struck that balance in a better way, I was able to function better academically and in so many other areas of my life.”

May 15, 2013

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