A Course in True Love
Medical students look to future after cancer-related detour
Although clichés are passé, omnia vincit amor – love conquers all – is highly appropriate in describing the longtime relationship between third-year Vanderbilt medical student Sarah Proffitt and her boyfriend, Amos Clark.
Proffitt and Clark grew up in the small town of Athens in East Tennessee where almost everyone knows everybody. These two were no exception.
Friends since middle school, the pair began dating their freshman year of high school. She attended their hometown high school, while he ventured to McCallie High School in nearby Chattanooga. The relationship continued when Proffitt came to Vanderbilt University as an undergraduate, while Clark attended the University of the South (Sewanee).
Everything was standard textbook romance until the fall of 2006 as the pair entered their sophomore year of college. On Proffitt’s first day of classes she received gut-wrenching news – Clark was diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML). He required immediate treatment. His future was uncertain.
“I came back (home) the next day. He was already in Knoxville, starting chemo,” recalled Proffitt. “It was really a whiplash kind of thing. Here we were, both getting ready for a new school year and then the gears completely changed.
“I didn’t have a lot of time to decide, but I knew the right thing for us was for me to take the semester off to help out with whatever he and his family needed,” she said.
Proffitt’s parents were hesitant, but supportive of their daughter’s decision. It helped that Vanderbilt was also in her corner.
“Vanderbilt was very supportive,” said Proffitt. “The dean I worked with was a breast cancer survivor, as was her sister. She told me the road ahead was going to be tough and that Amos was going to need a lot of support. She basically told me – do what you have to do. We will be here when you are ready to come back.”
With that reassurance, Proffitt stepped into her role as caregiver. Together the couple researched treatment options, traveling to various cancer centers across the country, ultimately settling on Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Clark’s best chance of long-term survival would be a bone marrow transplant with his younger brother as the donor.
Through it all, Proffitt stayed by his side. With a light academic schedule, she was able to re-enter school the following semester, while taking care of Clark.
Always intent on becoming a doctor, Proffitt’s experience with Clark fueled her interest.
“This really gave me a whole new perspective on being a doctor and working in health care,” said Proffitt. “I just kept charging ahead.”
Proffitt attended school every summer to graduate on time. Clark later transferred to Vanderbilt after his life-changing experience sparked his own interest in medicine.
“I had absolutely no plans of going to medical school before all of this happened,” said Clark. “I probably would have gone into our family business, but things definitely changed for me.
“I came here because of Sarah. I would not be here without her. Her hard work and dedication, her vision and outlook on things really impacted me.”
Clark, now six years post-transplant, is a second-year medical student at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis, on schedule to graduate in 2014.
Proffitt, a recipient of the David Hitt Williams, M.D., Memorial Scholarship and the James Preston Miller Scholarship, is slated to graduate from VUSM in 2013.
“I might not have considered staying on the medical school route if this had not happened to Amos,” admitted Proffitt. “I might very well have found something different if I had not had this extra drive and perspective from this experience. It really gave us a stronger sense of what we wanted to do with our lives.”
Although they do not get to see each other very often, the couple is OK with knowing that, in the end, it will all be worth it.
“We are working towards something together,” said Clark. “We are going to be together in residency. We are going to get there. I feel like I have made a choice, in careers and in a partner.”
For now Proffitt is considering whether to take a year off to explore the world of research before heading into residency.
“If I take a year off, we can apply for residency programs as a couple and be guaranteed to go to the same place,” she said looking over at Clark. “Or, I can go ahead and apply to a city that has tons of residency programs and he can have options.
“It’s tough enough getting our schedules lined up now. Either way it goes, the plan is to be in the same city. And we’ll go from there, together.”