- College of Medicine Students
She once aspired to be an international journalist, reporting on war and conflict in the Middle East, but at age 22, a cancer diagnosis brought that dream to a screeching halt. Suleika Jaouad’s story of a life interrupted is one that has inspired many, including students at UCF College of Medicine, where she spoke March 7 about her journey of illness and recovery.
Three years ago, Jaouad was diagnosed with myleodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia. Leukemia is a cancer of the blood, and MDS is a blood disorder that is often associated with certain forms of cancer. She had just graduated from Princeton University, and was living in Paris, pursuing her dream to become a journalist. After experiencing symptoms like severe fatigue and pale skin, Suleika sought medical care to find out why. That answer would not come until her fourth doctor ordered a bone marrow biopsy, which revealed the cancer. “As terrifying and as devastating as that diagnosis was, it was also weirdly liberating,” she said. “The truth of it is that none of us know when we’re going to die. Life is a terminal condition.”
Spending more than six months in isolation, undergoing aggressive chemotherapy and eventually a bone marrow transplant from her brother, Jaouad’s desire to write remained. . “I felt like cancer had forced me to put the pause button before my life and career had really started,” she recalled. “But I realized that putting my dreams on hold wouldn’t work, I needed to start now.” She began writing a blog from her hospital bed, which was spotted by a New York Times editor, who invited her to write for the newspaper’s Well Blog, which focuses on health topics.
Her resulting blog and video series won Jaouad a news Emmy Award last fall, an accomplishment she could only dream of from her hospital bed two years ago. “I always thought of myself as someone who would tell other people’s stories,” she said. “It never occurred to me to write in the first person, and that story might be my own. To report from the front lines of my hospital bed on the revolution taking place inside of me.”
Now 25, Jaouad is the same age as many medical students and her story resonated with first-year student, Angela DelPrete, who decided to reach out and invite her to Orlando. “We were reading your blog for one of our classes, and some people would say I kind of stalked you on Twitter,” DelPrete excitedly told Jaouad during her visit. “When you responded, I couldn’t wait to tell everyone the next day.”
That social media connection turned into an event sponsored by the Class of 2017 Student Government officers. Many students asked Jaouad’s advice on communicating with patients facing a potentially deadly diagnosis. “Bedside manner is the golden ticket,” she told them. “You can be the smartest student in your class, but the biggest complaint I hear from patients is that their doctors don’t know how to talk to them. My advice to you would be to communicate, to break things down into simple language, and continue to explain them.”
Long after the presentation, students remained to talk to Jaouad about a range of topics, from bone marrow donations to changing family and friend dynamics when a person is faced with a cancer diagnosis. Jaouad encouraged the physicians in training to communicate so they can understand what it means to be sick. “This is our challenge,” she said. “It’s the challenge of doctors, it’s the challenge of patients… I want to thank you all so much for making this the perfect conversation.”