Dr. Deborah (Wanglee) Sundlof '88, the attending cardiologist that day, quickly discovered that the patient's ejection fraction - the volume of blood pumped out of the ventricles with each heartbeat - "was below 10 percent. Normally, it's 55 percent or higher. He was a very sick young man."
Sundlof and her staff worked rapidly on the patient, who finally stabilized but remained in heart failure. The danger had not passed and the cause of the problem remained unclear. Was a transplant the answer? To find out, Sundlof referred the patient to a trusted colleague in Philadelphia, who happened to be her identical twin sister and fellow cardiologist, Dr. Joyce (Wanglee) Wald '88.
What caused the young man's sudden heart failure was never determined. "He had had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma as a child and had chemo- and radiation therapy," Sundlof said. "That could have weakened his heart. Or possibly a virus." More important than establishing cause, however, were the treatment of symptoms and determination of whether the heart could be stabilized through medicine in order to avoid surgery.
"We were hoping to avoid heart transplant surgery," Wald said. For the next several weeks the patient saw the twin cardiologists on a rotating basis, each evaluating progress and adjusting medications. "And ultimately his heart function normalized after about six months" - a result that obviously elated both doctors as they recounted the case.
In pursuit of a dream
That the Wanglee twins both became doctors isn't particularly surprising. "We always wanted to go into medicine," they said in near unison. Their mother, a pediatrician, had often taken them with her when she went to the office or hospital. The path to cardiology, however, wasn't exactly direct. In fact, when they were younger, they never even thought they might share the same medical specialty.
Sundlof and Wald grew up in Villanova, near Philadelphia, but were not always together. "Our mother kept us separated," Sundlof said. "She always put us in different classes so that we would make different friends and have different activities. She wanted us to develop our own personalities. Otherwise we would have been inseparable."
Nevertheless, they chose to attend the same college, deciding together on Gettysburg after visits to campus and to Dickinson and Franklin & Marshall. "We wanted to attend a small college," they both said. They liked being together, but after the first year lived separately. They were both in Chi Omega, however, and both ran cross country - something they loved.
"Ed Riggs was the best coach", Sundlof said. Wald agreed: "The team was like our family. We loved it. The seniors down to the freshmen, we stuck together and did er, a group of eight or nine students, and Dr. Kenney would say, ‘I would like you to tell me what valve abnormality this person has, we would all listen, then come out and tell him. And he would say, ‘See, all you needed were your hands and your ears and you made a diagnosis.' He really made you feel like you could make a difference in medicine." everything together. Others used to joke that they could hear us coming. We ran in a pack, and no matter how hard Coach Riggs would make the workout we would always be talking. He could hear us coming over the hills, this pack of girls chattering."
Another major influence was Prof. Emeritus Alex Rowland, who taught them organic chemistry. "He used to spend so much time with us," Wald said. "We had such a hard time with the course. We would take notes in class, then reorganize them and sit in his office, and he would go over our notes. He spent a lot of time with us."
Prof. Paul D'Agostino also helped both greatly. "Because of him, we ended up majoring in psychology, with preparation in premed," Sundlof said.
One Gettysburg experience was not so fond, however, and the twins insisted that it be mentioned here. In their senior year, a person in the provost office told them it was unlikely they could get into medical school. "He also said that if we did get in, we wouldn't make it through," Wald said. Neither listened to the "advice." If anything, it only made them more determined.
"It's not about extending life for two or three months. It's about the quality of life the person will have."
"We got back in our own way," Wald said with a laugh. "We succeeded and became doctors. That was the best part. And all along the way, whenever we were recognized for something - getting into medical school, graduating, taking a new position - our mother sent notice to the person. It was also a learning experience that we try to convey to today's Gettysburg students. We have spoken at some Career Development events, and we always tell the students to purse their dreams and not give up. That's what we did."
The twins stuck with it and they stuck together, both winning admission to Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "We lived together, and all we did was study," Sundlof said. "And we worked three jobs," Wald added. "Our three jobs were the library, cocktail waitress at the El Toritos restaurant, and a bagel store. The cocktail waitress job was a lot of fun. They were really nice to us. They would make the salsa really hot so that people would order more drinks."
"Our mom was also a huge force in getting us through medical school," Sundlof said. "She was always there for us. She put three children through grad school."
Cardiology as a specialty was not the first choice for either. Initially, Wald wanted to be a pediatrician and Sundlof wanted to go into obstetrics and gynecology. For a while Sundlof also thought of specializing in kidney medicine. "But as soon as we did cardiology in our rotations, we said, ‘this is it,'" Sundlof said. "We did the rotation together, with Dr. Joe Kenney. He was a great mentor. I remember, we would all be all together, a group of eight or nine students, and Dr. Kenney would say, ‘I would like you to tell me what valve abnormality this person has, we would all listen, then come out and tell him. And he would say, ‘See, all you needed were your hands and your ears and you made a diagnosis.' He really made you feel like you could make a difference in medicine."
"A normal day is 11 to 14 hours," Wald said. Added to that is emergency work when on call at night or on the weekend.
Denise M. Harnois '84, another 1980s graduate who attended Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, has been in the news recently.
Harnois, a hepatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., specializes in liver disease and liver transplantation. In June 1010 her patient Gregg Allman, of the Allman Brothers Band and formerly married to Cher, underwent a liver transplant in the Mayo Clinic Florida. According to Harnois, Allman had a form of hepatitis C that could be eradicated by the healthier new liver. "He has a favorable genotype, so he has a good chance of responding to therapy if it is needed in the future," she said.
Harnois was also involved in liver transplants for Phil Lesh (bass guitarist for the Grateful Dead) and Jim Guy Tucker (Clinton's successor as governor of Arkansas).
"Denise was one of my first immuno students at a time when transplant antigens were still rather mysterious," biology Prof. Ralph Sorensen recalled. "I remember spending time trying to help her figure out her term paper on the subject."
Following graduation from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Harnois completed a residency at Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and a fellowship in gastroenterology and hepatology at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.
Pre-health professions at Gettysburg College
As a child with a passion for horseback riding, Jackie D'Innocenzi '10 pictured herself as an equine vet when she entered Gettysburg. But after volunteering at a handicap-accessible riding stable for disabled individuals, she discovered that what she really enjoyed was working with people to overcome their physical disabilities. This realization put her on the path toward the medical profession, and she is now in a M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
Melissa Regina Schmidt '09 had a similar "aha" moment when she came to Gettysburg.
Her passion was physics, until she shadowed a local physician who exemplified passion for patient care. That experience led her ultimately to choose medicine in order to have a direct, hands-on affect on patients. She is now in a M.D. program at the University of Maryland
Other students tell similar stories of how they had the opportunity at Gettysburg to explore health and medical professions in the context of the liberal arts, as was reported in a feature story on pre-health science in the Spring 2008 issue of Gettysburg.
"Preparing for graduate school in the health professions within a liberal arts context is valuable," said Kristin Stuempfle, associate professor of health sciences. "Graduate schools expect well-rounded students who are trained in critical thinking and problem solving and who demonstrate exceptional communication skills and a life-long desire to learn - and that's what we offer here."
The pre-health professions at Gettysburg are thriving, with students going on to earn medical degrees, becoming doctors, surgeons, and cancer researchers. Others are pursuing a wide variety of specialties that include physical therapy, nursing, optometry, pharmacology, and veterinarian medicine. In fact, more than 30 graduates from the Class of '10 are currently pursuing advanced degrees in a health profession.
To learn more about the pre-health professions at Gettysburg, visit www.gettysburg.edu/prehealth.