As a medical student, Lauren Courtney Mitchell ’07 made a silent vow to herself.
“By the time I stumbled onto the wards, two years of endless exams and assessments had made me quite proficient at matter-of-factly [severing] myself from the emotional content of life,” she wrote in an essay, “Reflections of a Medical Student.” “I had vowed never to let anything about medical school bring me to tears; nothing, I was convinced, could ever affect me so personally.”
But one of her first cancer patients, an ex-Marine who was more interested in sharing his life stories than talking about what tests his medical team should order, made her realize that she would no doubt break her vow.
“(He taught me that) patients are far more than static characters in hospital gowns to whom we attach diagnoses; they laugh, love, work and play, and disease first manifests itself by interfering with this dynamic,” she wrote. “Any illness, then, is a process, and to fully understand its pathophysiology, a medical student must join the patient in reconciling that process with his or her particular life story. That is precisely what (he) taught me to do. He shared anecdotal wisdom from his high school principalship with me; I explained chemotherapy to him.”
“Courtney’s humanism and compassion are exemplary,” wrote Dr. Teresa Coleman, assistant professor of medicine at Georgia Health Sciences University’s (GHSU) Medical College of Georgia. “When the patient relapsed, the family contacted me, searching for Courtney. I passed along the message. Many months later, I learned that Courtney was at the patient’s bedside when he died, in his hometown, approximately five hours away from Augusta.”
It is Courtney’s compassion, sensitivity, and selflessness that earned her GHSU’s 2011 John F. Beard Award for Compassionate Care. She received the award and her medical degree during commencement May 5, 2011, at the tender age of twenty-one. The $25,000 annual award is endowed by William Porter “Billy” Payne and his wife, Martha, and given to a graduating GHSU student who exemplifies extraordinary compassion in healthcare. Payne, chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, established the award in 1998 to memorialize his father-in-law, who died of cancer in 1997. Courtney already had received the prestigious Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award, voted on by the faculty for exemplifying outstanding humanism in medicine, and the Physician’s Physician Award, voted by her classmates as the person they would most like to have as their own physician. She is the first student ever to win all three awards.
Courtney began tutoring classmates in her first year of medical school and continued into her second year, helping first-year students in histology, anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, and neuroscience. She also served on the Miracle Marathon, Morale and Family Relations Committee, where she coordinated contact with the families of chronically ill children and recruited them for an annual evening fundraiser for the hospital.
Connecting with families was familiar territory for Courtney. During her hematology/oncology rotation, she spent evenings with a patient after her chemotherapy sessions making crafts for the woman’s three children. She even went to a local market with the patient’s grandmother for ingredients to make a special smoothie because her patient loved fruit.
Courtney was only fifteen years old in the fall of 2005 when she came to Wesleyan College as a junior and joined the Golden Heart Class of 2007. She had spent the first two years of her “slightly off-the-beaten-path” college experience at the Georgia Academy of Math, Engineering, and Sciences and completed an associate’s degree in chemistry before graduating from high school. Majoring in chemistry at Wesleyan, Courtney did her honors thesis research with Dr. Wanda Schroeder ’80 in cell biology. “Courtney is a brilliant student and one of the nicest people with whom I’ve had the privilege to work. She is highly motivated, meticulous, and extremely careful in her research work,” said Dr. Schroeder.
Courtney said that Reverend Hurdle played a tremendous role in her academic and spiritual formation. During her time as a Wesleyan Disciple, the two worked closely together preparing chapel services and organizing STUNT weekend worship. “Having little chats in his office about our faith helped me to see school and everyday life with an eternal perspective. Reverend Hurdle truly taught me to enjoy the little blessings of each day,” she said. In 2011, Courtney learned that a student who shared her name was serving as a Wesleyan Disciple. She was inspired to make a donation to the scholarship program in the student’s honor.
Having a mother who was also an elementary science teacher sparked in Courtney an early interest in biology and scientific inquiry. When Courtney was ten years old, her father was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease, and his condition required frequent trips to neurologists and surgeons. Courtney claims that beyond the exacting nature of medicine, she was most impressed by its art-in-practice—the great opportunities physicians have to speak Christ-centered encouragements to families during such difficult times. “It was at that point that I prayerfully set my focus on becoming a doctor, and God has so graciously given me the opportunity to live this childhood dream. How truly blessed I am!”
Courtney will complete residency training in general pediatrics in the spring of 2014. Rather than specializing in one area of pediatrics, her interest is in treating the whole child and establishing lasting clinical alliances and, in turn, friendships with young families. Post residency, she plans to join a South Georgia practice that balances what she calls the best of both worlds, “the unpredictability of hospitalist call with the continuity-of-care that medical practice in the outpatient clinic affords.”
Working around her hectic schedule of being a doctor and a tutor, Courtney finds time to develop her spiritual and personal life, and in August she will marry Andy Miller, pastor at Victory Baptist Church in Vidalia. “I’ve finally learned to make myself drop the books for a while on days off and enjoy what really matters—spending time in awe and worship of our God and with family and friends.”