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Medical student demonstrates resilience

by Cindy Abole
Public Relations
Gina Iacovella-Alderson, M.D., wasn’t going to let life’s adversities interfere with her goal of becoming a doctor.
There was a time when this dynamic 29-year-old from Prospect, Conn., doubted that she would graduate. Despite the odds against her, Gina’s presence in today’s 179th MUSC Commencement ceremony is indicative of her character, courage and humanistic spirit that contributed to her becoming the sharp, skilled and empathetic professional.
Gina’s journey through medical school was filled with its share of trials and victories that would test her resilience and character over the course of five years.
Gina’s medical training began in 2003. Recruited to the University of South Carolina as a Division 1 NCAA women’s soccer player, the petite standout earned her undergraduate biology degree in 2000. Three years later, she earned a master’s in bioanalytical chemistry where she focused on the effects of diabetic complications. While in Columbia she met her future husband, Nate.
Soon, Gina’s interests led her to working with patients. She and Nate relocated to Charleston where he continued his doctoral studies in biochemistry at MUSC and where she met Division of Nephrology chair David W. Ploth, M.D.  She expressed an interest in kidney disease and diabetes research and other collaborative experiences. Later, she would complete  multiple nephrology electives to complement her specialty choice in internal medicine and nephrology.
Ploth worked with her to develop a protocol for a nephrology research project that she submitted for IRB approval. “She is one of the most positive, motivated individuals I’ve ever known—  consistent, dedicated and committed,” he said.
More than halfway through her second year of medical school, Gina’s  resolve was tested after she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left  knee during a recreational soccer game. The injury required surgery, delaying her academic calendar and the opportunity to take the Step 1 test of the U.S. Medical Licensing Boards and starting clinical rotations.
“It was evident that Gina’s health and well-being was a priority,” said Amy Blue, Ph.D., then assistant dean for curriculum and evaluation in the dean’s office, College of Medicine. “It’s been our philosophy that once a student who is recovering from extenuating health circumstances improves and their outlook stable, they are more likely to perform better with their academics.”
Over time, Gina experienced a series of complications and setbacks following ACL surgery, at another health care facility, which ultimately affected her ability to walk and stand. For three months, she was couch-bound and suffered from chronic swelling and severe, burning pain in her leg.
The once healthy, fully-functioning student became an individual with extreme physical limitations. It also was a difficult time for her, not only physically but emotionally. Gina didn't want her limitations to affect her training, and she questioned if she would be able to complete medical school.
Meanwhile, Blue and the College of Medicine faculty and staff were seeing a more immediate challenge: how to accommodate students with a disability as it relates to their medical education and coordinate their clinical rotation experiences?
Arrangements were made to accommodate Gina, which would limit walking or standing and allow her to rest her leg periodically throughout the work days.
“Gina is one of those students who chose medicine for all the right reasons and possesses the right talent. We needed to support her and others like her who are on their way to becoming a fantastic physician. It’s what we do,” said Blue.
Transplant surgeon Kenneth Chavin, M.D., Ph.D., and his team hosted Gina during her surgery rotation in spring 2007. Unfortunately, her rotation was cut short on her second day when Gina underwent an emergency procedure delaying her clinical experience. Not one to leave things undone, she was able to complete her rotation at another time.
“Gina brought a different perspective and a mature vision during her time with us,” Chavin wrote in a   letter praising her. “Gina possesses that rare understanding and insight, both as a scientist and patient with a life-changing illness that was exemplified in her role as a medical student in training and future health professional delivering quality patient care.” 
Psychiatry clerkship preceptor Chris Pelic, M.D., also was impressed with Gina’s work ethic and ability to connect with patients.
“She genuinely cares about her patients and what she does. Her perseverance and determination will make her an outstanding physician,” Pelic said.
Gina helped diagnose a patient with thyroid cancer on the adult psychiatric unit. Her persistence in ordering tests, labs and other diagnostic procedures confirmed the diagnosis and initiated treatment that probably helped saved the patient’s life, according to Pelic. “It’s rare to see a student like Gina approach each of her medical rotation experiences with the same level of determination and gusto. It’s what we, as teachers, love to see in our students,” he said.
Through these experiences, Gina’s shown a grace and a maturity beyond her years. She still is inspired to help renal patients and others with chronic diseases, and has a renewed appreciation for all patients. Gina now wears an implanted pain control device and has learned to accept the good with the bad and takes life one step at a time.
“Every time I fall, I’ve learned to pick myself up, dust myself off and keep going,” said Gina. “It’s like running a marathon. You have to find the patience and strength from within to run the entire course.”
On July 1, she will begin a three-year internal medicine residency at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Nate also is working at Cedars-Sinai as director of clinical and basic science research in the Department of Surgery.

Friday, May 16, 2008
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