Emma Sand

A warm September breeze rustled the leaves as I continued on my walk home from an evening at a friend’s off-campus house. The air was still comfortable, as the summer weather began to wind down at the end of September 2020. The walk was only a half-mile, and I reflected on my current medical school application. Interview invitations had just begun to roll into my email inbox.

emma sand

Emma Sand

But something broke the peace; the next moments are only pieced together from recounts of witnesses in the police report. A white SUV, speeding down the street, ignoring the blinking red light that was signaling the driver to stop. The car connected with my body, sending me 30 feet through the air. My recollection of the next week in the ICU is just as absent as the accident itself. My chart read: subarachnoid hemorrhage, subdural hemorrhage, liver laceration, traumatic brain injury, fractured transverse process, capitate, and hamate, among other injuries. Although my journey to becoming a physician was well on its way before my accident, my perspective and motivation were altered, and my purpose feels greater.

While I do not remember my interactions with my care team in the hospital, I do have some memories of my follow-up appointments that occurred in the months after my accident. Every single physician, from my PM&R doctor to my neurosurgeon, expressed the same sentiment: “It is a miracle that you made such a recovery, and I am so excited to see how well you are doing after the significance of your injuries.” According to my mother, the hospital staff felt the same way. Even in the ICU, various staff would stop by my room to see how I was doing, because they heard the extent of my injury. The physicians and my entire care team were incredible to my parents and me. Their support was crucial, and I will be forever grateful.

I started medical school nine months later. Even though my physicians advised me to wait to begin school until I had more time to recover, I was not ready to put my dream on hold. Before I began my application process, I had dreams of becoming a physician who worked in a relatively stable environment. I spent my year between graduation and medical school matriculation working as a surgical scheduler for a neurosurgery practice. Early on in my role here, I determined that a surgeon or critical care physician was not going to be in my future, due to the stress that came with the job.

My accident changed my motivations in medicine. When someone goes through a life-or-death experience like this, it really does change you. You grapple with your mortality, you try to reason through why this would happen to you, and you run through the millions of scenarios in your head for how you could have changed the outcome.

I am the type of person who needs to be in control of my environment, and this accident broke me because there was no possible way to control what happened. I spent months obsessing over what would have happened if I chatted with my friend for 30 seconds longer that night, if I fumbled with my shoelaces more, or even if I took a different route home. I am still not sure if I am the type of person who believes that everything happens for a reason, but in this scenario, I had to believe that to keep myself from going crazy.

Why did I not die? Why was I not permanently disabled? How did a car hit me head-on going 35 mph, and yet, I was still able to walk out of the hospital five days later? The only thing that keeps me sane is the thought that I was meant to be this physician for someone else. I was put through this challenge and I survived, because I have the knowledge and ability to do what my physicians did for me. My passion is trauma. I have already become involved in trauma-based research. Now, my dream is not just to be a physician, but to become a trauma surgeon.

Even a year into medical school and almost two years since my accident, I still think of it every single day. Every time I become worked up, I think of my goal in my career. Still, I grapple with this exact career path and try to think of eloquent reasons for exactly why I want to pursue trauma surgery. I know in my heart that this is my desire, but I could not find the right way to convey this to others.

A few months ago, I listened to a panel with three trauma surgeons talking about their careers. Someone asked how they were able to keep their sanity in that role. One of the physicians told a story of his patient a few years ago who had been in a similar accident as me: pedestrian vs. vehicle. He said he saw the patient a few weeks ago at the grocery store, doing really well, and seeing his patient again reminded him of why he does this. He ended the story with the following sentiment: every trauma surgeon needs to have this patient, the one who recovers and gives them hope that not every person who comes across your table is going to be met with death.

Hearing him say this, I realized that this is the main part of my desire to pursue trauma surgery. I was that patient who gave my doctors hope, and I want to be the physician who makes this a possibility for someone else. Patients and their families come into the hospital and interact with the critical care team on what may possibly be the worst day of their life; I know it was mine. To be that person for someone else, the physician who is working their absolute hardest to keep their patient alive, would make all of the other challenges worth it. What an absolute privilege to be the physician who gets to do this.

This is what I want my career to be. I will never say that I am glad this happened to me, but I am excited for the pursuit of my passion in medicine.