In March 2016, medical student Rachel Pearson matched for a residency in pediatrics at the University of Washington Affiliated Hospitals in Seattle. Pearson was an doctoral student at University of Texas Medical Branch’s Institute for Medical Humanities.
A year later, Pearson was a published author with W.W. Norton & Company, receiving national and international attention for her hard-hitting memoir, “No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine,” the tale of her student experience at the medical branch when care for uninsured patients was being cut back there and around the country.
Last year, Galveston Reads chose Pearson’s book for its community-wide reading event and Monday, Pearson will return to Galveston to talk about her book and issues it raises about the state of medical care in America.
Like many medical branch students, Pearson received a good deal of her hands-on training at St. Vincent’s House in the student-run volunteer clinic open to anyone who needed medical care.
Her observations of the plight of Galveston’s poor after Hurricane Ike, and changes driven by financial considerations at the medical branch are at times brutal, often tender and always provocative, forcing readers to engage in some of the hard questions facing the nation as quality medical care becomes more expensive and those who need it most are often used as training subjects but might not qualify for treatment.
Pearson said she was surprised at the widespread and lasting enthusiasm over her book.
“I thought there was no way so many people would care about people struggling in Galveston County,” she said. “I had personal reasons to tell the story and had to get it off my chest, but there was no way I could have expected that people from around the country would read about our community and care about it.”
Pearson is finishing her residency at the University of Washington Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, a system flush with resources for all patients, regardless of their insurance status, she said.
“I came here, where I can get my kids any care they need, basically so I would know how to advocate for kids in Texas, so I would know what a strong system should look like,” she said.
Being able to get care for her charges as a resident is a relief, she said, following on the heels of the St. Vincent’s experience where patients diagnosed with advanced disease often faced a dead end. Students like Pearson who saw them in clinic, examined them and got them diagnosed were often left in a moral quandary, scrambling to find a hospital that would accept them into an indigent treatment program.
“We always thank the doctors who taught us, but also the patients who taught us,” she said. “We need to call out the fact that those patients are vulnerable people who may not have had a choice to see anyone but us for treatment.”
Pearson said the book has been received warmly at the medical branch, another pleasant surprise.
“It’s very much to UTMB’s credit that the book has been incorporated into the curriculum of the Practice of Medicine course,” she said. Pearson said she has been invited to speak at the medical branch.
Pearson said that choosing pediatrics was like finding her tribe — doctors who understood that the broadest spectrum of care from an early age is needed to form a healthy adult and a healthy society.
“I was doing some research on kids in detention centers on the border through the Institute for Medical Humanities, and I’d hear from mothers saying things like, ‘My toddler is existing entirely on breast milk.’ I spoke to the Texas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics after that, about how the place where you live really affects your status and your future and I saw heads nodding out in the crowd,” she said.
“I feel that advocating for kids is advocating for all of us.”